Skip to main content

He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.

The Shape of Water
(2017)

(SPOILERS) The faithful would have you believe it never went away, but it’s been a good decade since Guillermo del Toro’s mojo was in full effect, and his output since (or lack thereof: see the torturous wilderness years of At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit), reflected through the prism of his peak work Pan’s Labyrinth, bears the hallmarks of a serious qualitative tumble. He put his name to stinker TV show The Strain, returned to movies with the soulless Pacific Rim and fashioned flashy but empty gothic romance Crimson Peak (together his weakest pictures, and I’m not forgetting Mimic). The Shape of Water only seems to underline what everyone has been saying for years, albeit previously confined to his Spanish language pictures: that the smaller and more personal they are, the better. If his latest is at times a little too wilfully idiosyncratic, it’s also a movie where you can nevertheless witness it’s creator’s creativity flowing untrammelled once more.


Del Toro called The Shape of Watera fairy tale for difficult times”, before adding that it was “an antidote for cynicism, a variation on Beauty and the Beast where the beast remains the beast”. Accordingly, like a fairy tale, the picture requires a divorce from the rigours of logic to fully engage. Otherwise, applying such scrutiny, one would understandably question why Elisa (Sally Hawkins, radiant) opts to wait an interminable amount of time upon rescuing Amphibian Man (Doug Jones, gilly and great) before dragging him down the docks and releasing him to safety. It would, after all, have saved a whole lot of grief, pain, suffering and (possibly) lives. The answer is that she has the hots for him, silly, such that Elisa walks through the movie as a naïf, an Edward Scissorhands or an Amélie existing in a different world to everyone else (or most people else), not merely because she is mute (although that signifiers her as a freak, a misfit, along with the variously sexually, racially and culturally disenfranchised with whom she forms bonds) but because she sees the world with untarnished eyes. Which is not to say she’s an innocent (hence her daily bathtub masturbation habit), but that she is unspoiled by the cruelty and intolerance of society around her. When with her friends, Giles (Richard Jenkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), she finds islands of solace, mutual acceptance of difference and differences.


As with Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s magical realist, fairy tale construct is realised through the contrast of opposites. Elisa and Zelda are menial cleaning staff at a top-secret government facility, the one where Gillman is delivered and promptly chews off a couple of fingers of his military captor Strickland (Michael Shannon, playing classic Michael Shannon, which is to say, a raging, bug-eyed psycho). The place is austere, foreboding and always on high security, but within its confines a form of unlikely romance develops as Elisa sneaks hardboiled eggs – reeking too much of symbolism to be labelled symbolic – to her scaly friend and playing him tunes. These Amazonian reptile men really dig vinyl.


Del Toro has made out that Strickland is set up as the formidable villain only to allow his vulnerability/oppressed state ultimately show through, which the director argues has been a consistent trait in his pictures. While that may be the case thematically, and viscerally (Strickland walks around with two increasingly festering and gangrenous reattached fingers to remind us of how deeply corrupted and depraved he is, so depraved he washes his hands before he goes to the toilet), the mere fact of casting Shannon announces something less interesting and nuanced. Now, if del Toro had succeeded in persuading us to root for Strickland’s success, for fear of the consequences from those who oppress him, while simultaneously wanting the same for our protagonists, that would have been something to shout about. As it is, almost everything laid at his door, from his wanton cruelty towards Abe Sapien, to seeing others as types, affording them barely human standing, to finding himself attracted to Elisa (established as a variant on his need for control – she can’t talk back – but coming across as an unnecessary and unlikely addition to his roster of already sufficiently over-stocked creepiness), even his candy-popping habit, lends him a two-dimensional villainy that showing his home life does nothing to allay.


Which means Strickland is an entirely effective and formidable presence (even if he’s very slow on the uptake – the scene in which Elisa is staring him down before signing “Fuck you” would have seen her found out by anyone even incrementally brighter – to the extent that he needs to be fed the missing pieces of the puzzle, rather than deducing himself) but not a very interesting one, particular when it comes to his third act rampage. No one else, certainly not General Hoyt (Nick Searcy from Justified), and definitely not his nominal colleagues Fleming (David Hewlett) and Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), occupies that space.


As a consequence, the activities at the facility aren’t as diverting once Elisa has broken Amphibian Man out in a marvellously tense heist sequence, aided by Zelda and Hoffstetler. The latter turns out to be a Soviet agent with a heart, the antithesis of Strickland doing everything his country asks for him and still getting hauled over coals for his single failure (Stuhlbarg is great, although you can’t help thinking the character was short changed somewhere along the way). Del Toro makes it clear that, in their zest to dispose of the beast, both sides have missed out on the biggest scientific breakthrough they might ever encounter, entirely because they failed to see the wood for the trees (or rather, the creature’s endless rejuvenation ability for his perceived uselessness as a subject in unmanned space flights).


Elisa’s fantasia of escapism, nourished by Dan Laustsen’s enchanted cinematography and an idealised setting (an expanse of a hideaway above a glorious classical cinema) frequently put me in mind of Amélie, although the accompanying Alexandre Desplat score and del Toro’s tone-juggling never quite cohere the way the giddily quirky Jean-Pierre Jeunet and composer Yann Tiersen did. The obsession with musicals is cute but a little over-cooked, complete with a de rigueur gay neighbour to indulge her doting (that Giles rises above such stereotypes is almost entirely down to Jenkins’ endearing performance; that and some amusing business with wigs).


Del Toro was frank about the number of balls he was juggling, noting that, of all the various elements making up the movie, what “works for the musical also has to work tonally for the melodrama, the comedy and the thriller”.  This is as much true of the screenplay as the execution. While The Shape of Water never loses its thread, it’s in danger of becoming too accommodating during these interludes, like a movie bore letting loose with no one whispering in his ear when to stop. Nevertheless, Hawkins is so entirely commanding that you’re willing to suspend disbelief in anything she does, and she’s a large part of why the most whimsical elements get a free pass.


While the mixing up of genres is quite audacious, the actual content of those elements is contrastingly quite conventional, such that when Elisa is suddenly transported into a musical, now with voice, it seems like an inevitability, one del Toro just about pulls off. Not because I felt her dancing with a fish man carried the danger of conveying Putting on the Ritz-type mirth à la Young Frankenstein, but because it feels very much a calculation of where this del Toro’s musically-enthused scenario will end up, as uncynical as his intentions may be. You can’t fault him for challenging himself, though, and credit is particularly due for pulling off a mature love story, one conveyed largely without words, straying into territory – notably sex – he has avoided hitherto, without the prurience that frequently accompanies such fare.


There are other signposted elements; as soon as we see the placing of Elisa’s scars, we know they will have a bearing on the movie’s outcome. So too, the checklist of gender/race/prejudice issues is perhaps a little schematic in conception (the physically disabled, a black woman, a gay man, a communist), but rarely feels so in execution (del Toro has always been better on screen than on the page). Giles’ subplot suggests the director has been consuming Mad Men box sets at some point, while the sad encounter with the bartender leads to the reveal that the latter is both homophobic and racist and makes revolting green pies. If Hoffstetler is a good Commie, it doesn’t alter the fact that the Soviets generally are still the bad guys (hardly bucking the current cinematic trend). The only surprise in this scenario isn’t one for a director who always identifies with the monster; the happily ever after comes with the caveat that Elisa must transform for the creature, rather than the creature for her (but wait, didn’t Shrek pull of that trick nearly two decades ago? Maybe not such a game changer after all).


There’s also a sense occasionally that del Toro is striving too hard for Edward Scissorhands-esque naivety and not quite succeeding, simply because del Toro isn’t Tim Burton (or isn’t who Tim Burton was, at any rate). This is why the violence frequently feels jarring and out of step, gratuitous even, the horror geek unable to get out of the way of his romance. Where Pan’s Labyrinth was entirely germane and of-a-piece, juxtaposing the brutality of Nazi reality with the escape/mirroring thereof through fantasy, here the elements are a little more calculated and thus less effective/integrated. You can see the wheels and levers at work, much as in one of the director’s intricately-designed clockwork devices. Del Toro is always one to encourage the dark, and he’s in sharp focus whenever something nasty is transpiring; however much he may want us to swoon with a submerged bathroom love scene, what really gets him going is Gillman subsequently eviscerating a cat (the filmmaker joins the recently infamous ranks of the Coens and Wes Anderson for inflicting unnecessary aggression on felines everywhere) or Strickland dragging Hoffstetler around by the bullet hole in his cheek.


What of The Shape of Water’s chances come Oscar night? If it takes the big prize, it will be a rare fantasy to go home showered in glory. It wouldn’t be my pick of those I’ve seen thus far (that would be Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri) – although I’d go to bat for Hawkins over favourite Frances McDormand for Best Actress – but for all that I don’t think it’s as perfectly conceived and completed as Pan’s Labyrinth, a picture that seemed to spring into existence fully formed, it would be my runner up. It’s a picture that, like Three Billboards, boasts the fascination that comes with a distinctive voice, and in del Toro’s case is a welcome reminder that the voice can be just as distinctive as ever it was when it forsakes the big payday.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Sorry I’m late. I was taking a crap.

The Sting (1973)
(SPOILERS) In any given list of the best things – not just movies – ever, Mark Kermode would include The Exorcist, so it wasn’t a surprise when William Friedkin’s film made an appearance in his Nine films that should have won Best Picture at the Oscars list last month. Of the nominees that year, I suspect he’s correct in his assessment (I don’t think I’ve seen A Touch of Class, so it would be unfair of me to dismiss it outright; if we’re simply talking best film of that year, though, The Exorcist isn’t even 1973’s best horror, that would be Don’t Look Now). He’s certainly not wrong that The Exorcistremains a superior work” to The Sting; the latter’s one of those films, like The Return of the King and The Departed, where the Academy rewarded the cast and crew too late. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the masterpiece from George Roy Hill, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, not this flaccid trifle.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

What lit the fire that set off our Mr Reaper?

Death Wish (2018)
(SPOILERS) I haven’t seen the original Death Wish, the odd clip aside, and I don’t especially plan to remedy that, owing to an aversion to Charles Bronson when he isn’t in Once Upon a Time in the West and an aversion to Michael Winner when he wasn’t making ‘60s comedies or Peter Ustinov Hercule Poirots. I also have an aversion to Eli Roth, though (this is the first of his oeuvre I’ve seen, again the odd clip aside, as I have a general distaste for his oeuvre), and mildly to Bruce when he’s on autopilot (most of the last twenty years), so really, I probably shouldn’t have checked this one out. It was duly slated as a fascistic, right-wing rallying cry, even though the same slaters consider such behaviour mostly okay if the protagonist is super-powered and wearing a mask when taking justice into his (or her) own hands, but the truth is this remake is a quite serviceable, occasionally amusing little revenger, one that even has sufficient courage in its skewed convictions …

You had to grab every single dollar you could get your hands on, didn't you?

Triple Frontier (2019)
(SPOILERS) Triple Frontier must have seemed like a no-brainer for Netflix, even by their standards of indiscriminately greenlighting projects whenever anyone who can’t get a job at a proper studio asks. It had, after all, been a hot property – nearly a decade ago now – with Kathryn Bigelow attached as director (she retains a producing credit) and subsequently JC Chandor, who has seen it through to completion. Netflix may not have attracted quite the same level of prospective stars – Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum were all involved at various points – but as ever, they haven’t stinted on the production. To what end, though? Well, Bigelow’s involvement is a reliable indicator; this is a movie about very male men doing very masculine things and suffering stoically for it.

Poor A. A. Milne. What a ghastly business.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
The absolutely true story of how P. L. Travers came to allow Walt Disney to adapt Mary Poppins, after 20 years’ persistent begging on the latter’s part. Except, of course, it isn’t true at all. Walt has worked his magic from beyond the grave over a fairly unremarkable tale of mutual disagreement. Which doesn’t really matter if the result is a decent movie that does something interesting or though-provoking by changing the facts… Which I’m not sure it does. But Saving Mr. Banks at least a half-decent movie, and one considerably buoyed by the performances of its lead actors.

Actually, Mr. Banks is buoyed by the performances of its entire cast. It’s the script that frequently lets the side down, laying it on thick when a lighter touch is needed, repeating its message to the point of nausea. And bloating it out not so neatly to the two-hour mark when the story could have been wrapped up quite nicely in a third less time. The title itself could perhaps be seen as rubbi…

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)
Cheeseburger Film Sandwich. Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon. Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie. Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie, arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate terms, it only sporadically fulfils…

Trouble’s part of the circus. They said Barnum was in trouble when he lost Tom Thumb.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
(SPOILERS) Anyone of a mind that it’s a recent development for the Oscars to cynically crown underserving recipients should take a good look at this Best Picture winner from the 25thAcademy Awards. In this case, it’s generally reckoned that the Academy felt it was about time to honour Hollywood behemoth Cecil B DeMille, by that point into his seventies and unlikely to be jostling for garlands much longer, before it was too late. Of course, he then only went and made a bona fide best picture contender, The Ten Commandments, and only then pegged it. Because no, The Greatest Show on Earth really isn’t very good.