“The Shape of Water” has plenty: the pace of a steady stream, pieces as cold as ice, and a story that builds to a boiling point. It’s also a bit shallow.
Guillermo del Toro is one of the best directors working today. “The Shape of Water,” however, is not his best work. As this award season’s dark-horse darling, its recognition feels more like a makeup call for passing on his “Pan’s Labyrinth,” among the very best films of all time.
“The Shape of Water” is del Toro’s horror-esque homage to that very history—a modern take on the “tale as old as time” though for “adult swim” only. But where “The Shape of Water” gets tepid is that it relies too heavily on our understanding of that past without ever developing its own. Its lack of a metaphorical deep end limits the film’s tensions and its desired, well, deep ending.
Such quick and easy gratification is made crystal clear in the film’s opening sequence. Beauty, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), takes a beast-like approach to satisfy her suffering sensuality. Earning its R rating, “The Shape of Water” is like the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” in the famed Playboy Mansion grotto.
Esposito is not molded, however, in the image of one of Hef’s sought-after bunnies. As a mute cleaning lady, she’s a societal stepchild of the 1960s, as are her homosexual neighbor Giles (Richard Spencer) and African-American colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Each gives buoyant performances that absolutely make “The Shape of Water,” showing what discrimination in any form deserves: drowning.
It’s a social commentary that works, until del Toro’s love story gets uncomfortably explicit. When a humanoid sea creature (Doug Jones) is received for studying at the government lab where Esposito works, Cold War hothead Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) employs torture tactics that would make a public school’s dissected frog to be green with envy. Their relationship warrants being graphic. The one between fish and female, however, doesn’t.
Although Esposito’s friendship with the amphibian forms far too fast—without any sense of fear or mystery—it at least feeds del Toro’s larger thematic framework of encouraging acceptance and love, particularly for Esposito, whose own difference has left her denied since youth. Amphibian fornication, not so much.
Belle loved Beast and Ann loved Kong the same way people love pets. They don’t have sex with them; when they do, they’re arrested. Had del Toro kept the relationship between Esposito and creature purely platonic, his fairy tale would’ve been far more touching, tonally speaking.
Everything else about “The Shape of Water” is solid—direction, score, visuals, and, again, its performances. If only elements of Esposito’s love story had been left to the imagination, with her backstory receiving its needed elaboration.
Without it, “The Shape of Water” is quite flat.
3.5 out of 5