Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants

Film: The Shape of Water
Format: Classic Cinemas Charlestowne 18.

I would be lying if I suggested that I didn’t have high hopes for The Shape of Water. I always have high hopes for anything touched by Guillermo del Toro, and that’s especially true when he’s sitting in the director’s chair. The Shape of Water is the film I’ve been waiting for since I saw the first trailer. The movie has been given a slow open, and now, about a good month after the film officially opened, the closest theater showing the movie is a good 45 minutes away. Still, I see all of del Toro’s movies in the theater, so it was only a matter of time before I went to see it.

I’m going to spill the beans a little here. The Shape of Water is good, even very good. It is as beautiful as any of del Toro’s films and perhaps quite a bit more beautiful than many of them. But it doesn’t quite rise to the level of great. There are moments that are as good as anything del Toro has ever done. But I guessed the ending, and the ending is something the film doesn’t quite earn.

There has been some minor talk about del Toro taking over the Dark Universe. Part of that is because he is very much attuned to the sort of films that were intended for that reboot. Part is that (as The Shape of Water demonstrates) he can bring in a film on a small budget and have every dollar appear on the screen and look like five times that amount. With the tanking of The Mummy reboot, the Dark Universe needs something to save it. Some of this idea comes from the fact that The Shape of Water borrows liberally from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. In fact, the elevator pitch version of the plot is “It’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but this time, the woman falls in love with the creature.”

And really, that’s it. Oh, sure, there’s a lot more that happens here, and this completely avoids the characters. Aside from the amphibian man (Doug Jones), our main focus is cleaning woman Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), who is mute. While she can hear, she speaks only in sign language. Co-worker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and her closeted roommate and best friend, artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) are able to translate for everyone else, although for the audience, much of what Elisa says is subtitled.

Elisa and Zelda work at a large research facility in Baltimore, cleaning labs and offices at night. One evening, the facility receives a new “asset,” the creature in question. It is brought in by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a stern and cruel man who wants the creature vivisected and studied specifically because it can breathe both in and out of water. The research is intended to help the American space program. Standing in the way of Strickland is Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who believes that the creature is much more capable and more human than Strickland can see. Hoffstetler may have other reasons to keep the creature alive as well.

But this is in many ways a love story, and it’s Elisa who truly bonds with the creature. She feeds him hard boiled eggs and plays music for him, and when she learns of Strickland’s plans to have the creature killed and studied, she decides that she must do anything she can to free it. And really, that’s the story here, although there’s some nudity, sex, and a lot of language, something that feels a little out of character (but not entirely unwelcome) from del Toro.

There are a lot of things The Shape of Water does really well. We get very quick senses of characters, for instance. Without it becoming obvious at a point later in the film, we know almost immediately that Giles is a gay man. It’s also clear from another early scene that Giles probably lost his job because he is a closeted gay man who more than likely had a relationship with his boss. It’s subtle and it’s all beautifully done, giving us character without handing it to us in dialogue.

I also genuinely appreciate the fact that The Shape of Water sees Elisa as a sexual being. Elisa is in many ways a broken woman—her muteness evidently caused by a trauma induced on her early in life. She is clearly on the margins of society. And, bluntly, Sally Hawkins is 41 and not the sort of actress given to being shown as romantically or sexually inclined. It’s refreshing.

My problem with The Shape of Water comes down to one simple fact: I guessed the ending. I knew exactly what was going to happen in the final few minutes of the film. I had suspicions early on, and then as the film came to the climactic moments, I knew exactly where we were going to go and how we were going to get there. That’s disappointing. For a movie that has so many beautiful moments and deeply drawn characters, to have the ending more or less telegraphed makes me sad.

Honestly, I probably like The Shape of Water more than I should because I love the work of Guillermo del Toro. But at the same time, I’m probably more critical of it than I should be because I expect so much of him. This is worth seeing. It’s not my favorite of his movies, but I’m very happy to have seen it.

Why to watch The Shape of Water: Guillermo del Toro’s work is always beautiful and impeccable.
Why not to watch: It’s not hard to guess the ending.

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