Movie review: The Shape of Water (2017)


An amphibious humanoid resembling the Creature from the Black Lagoon is brought to a government lab during the height of the Cold War. Cleaning lady Elisa (Sally Hawkins) forms a relationship with the creature and takes action when she learns of plans to vivisect him.

There is a scene in The Shape of Water that demonstrates much of what’s wrong with the film; I can’t write “everything that’s wrong” because there’s a lot more wrong, but much of what’s wrong.

Giles (Richard Jenkins), the friend and eventual accomplice of Elisa is in a neighborhood pie shop that he frequents. He gets into a conversation with the young man behind the counter, Pie Guy (that’s what he’s called in the credits, played by Morgan Kelly) and decides that this is the opportune moment to make a fairly aggressive homosexual play for Mr. Guy. Pie Guy is very uncomfortable with this and rejects the advance, as one might expect a young, straight guy to do in 1958.

The audience, while having sympathy with a lonely older man who is an outcast from society due to his homosexuality, might also have some sympathy for a young man thrust into a very awkward situation. And We Cannot Have That. It needs to be known the Pie Guy’s flustered rejection is because he is pure evil, so at this precise moment, a black couple walks in and Pie Guy rudely lets them know that they have no place sitting in the empty diner and kicks them out. And Giles, of course.

It is important to the film’s theme to establish Giles’ homosexuality and some of the societal rejection that comes with it. But why does poor Pie Guy, who has seemed like a very pleasant young man up until this point, have to be Pure Evil in order to establish these things?

This is a film that, while posing as uplifting, hates humanity. With the exception of a couple of bit characters needed to advance the plot, every character not involved in the plot to extract gill-man is either evil or extraordinarily blasé about the evil around them. (The bit characters might be evil as well, we just don’t get to know them.) The Cold War is nothing more than a dick-measuring between two evil governments. Men don’t care when their wives are being verbally abused, humiliated, and threatened right in front of them. The pleasant man behind the counter at your neighborhood diner is coiled hate just waiting to spring.

The most evil of them all is Michael Strickland (Michael Shannon), the tired cliché of an evil general. General Strickland is not allowed the slightest smidgen of humanity. He isn’t misguided, mistaken, or imperfect. In fact he is perfect! Perfect evil. That critics are praising a film with such a stereotypical one-dimensional antagonist should let future film-makers know that all you have to do to fool these dullards is dress your film up to make it look pretty and pander to the critics’ ideology.

Also, the movie is as utterly predictable. By maybe twenty minutes in, the only major plot point that viewers may not be able to guess in this formulaic movie is the very end, and even that can be guessed if some not-terribly-subtle foreshadowing is paid attention to.

Three things elevate this film to the whopping two-star level: The performances are fine, with even poor Michael Shannon doing the best with what he has to work with; the pacing at least keeps things moving; and the art direction is beautiful. None of that is enough to make the film worth seeing, but if you do see it, you’ll at least have those things to distract you.



2 thoughts on “Movie review: The Shape of Water (2017)

  1. See, I’d have commented before, but I never go see movies in theaters these days. Not even Pixar films. Okay, the occasional revival at MOMA or Film Forum, but even those I usually miss.

    I feel like I’ve seen this, with all the attention it’s gotten, and all the reviews, and thirteen Oscar nods (!!!), but I haven’t. I like Guillermo Del Toro’s directing style very much, but it would be fair to say that nuanced moral shading isn’t his thing. Didn’t bother anybody when it was Spanish fascists, or extra-dimensional aliens sending giant monsters to take over the world. I mean, hey, we all have our reasons.

    It’s basically a fable, right? A SciFi/Horror tinged fairy tale. Those tend to be very black and white, unless they’re doing a revisionist thing, where the witch is just misunderstood, or whatever.

    The fact is, some people are just mean, narrow-minded, intolerant, bigoted, and deeply stupid. It’s okay to tell stories about that. We don’t always have to see their side of the story. It depends on what kind of story you’re telling. This is a fable, but the people who would normally either be the monsters or ignored entirely are the good guys.

    I agree the bit with the gay character making unwanted advances sounds lame (maybe we need a #MeThree movement?), but the problem seems to be (again, I’ve only read about this) that they need to give him a reason to help the leads. So he’s got to experience prejudice himself to get motivated. So he’s got to let the young guy at the restaurant know he’s gay, as you noted. But why does he then have to see Pie Guy reject a black couple? To make the connection between what’s done to him because he’s different and what’s done to others. And it’s not like they made that up. Gay people were utterly rejected then (barely even acknowledged), and segregation was legal. That is evil. I don’t know what else to call it. And as Romain Gary would have said, the problem with evil, is that it often comes from people who don’t seem the least bit evil on the surface. People who seem evil on the surface may be good. Appearances often deceive. Still a point worth making.

    The ending sounds an awful lot like a gender-reversed Splash, but I guess they figured they didn’t want to make it too dark. Thing is, the world she’s leaving is so awful, there’s not much of a conflict there.

    I thought about going, but it can wait for cable.

    Eventually you’re going to review something I’ve seen or read, and then we can have an actual discussion, maybe.


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