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

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…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

I didn't kill her. I just relocated her.

The Discovery (2017)
(SPOILERS) The Discovery assembles not wholly dissimilar science-goes-metaphysical themes and ideas to Douglas Trumbull's ill-fated 1983 Brainstorm, revolving around research into consciousness and the revelation of its continuance after death. Perhaps the biggest discovery, though, is that it’s directed and co-written by the spawn of Malcom McDowell and Mary Steenburgen (the latter cameos) – Charlie McDowell – of hitherto negligible credits but now wading into deep philosophical waters and even, with collaborator Justin Lader, offering a twist of sorts.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

How many galoshes died to make that little number?

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
(SPOILERS) Looney Tunes: Back in Action proved a far from joyful experience for director Joe Dante, who referred to the production as the longest year-and-a-half of his life. He had to deal with a studio that – insanely – didn’t know their most beloved characters and didn’t know what they wanted, except that they didn’t like what they saw. Nevertheless, despite Dante’s personal dissatisfaction with the finished picture, there’s much to enjoy in his “anti-Space Jam”. Undoubtedly, at times his criticism that it’s “the kind of movie that I don’t like” is valid, moving as it does so hyperactively that its already gone on to the next thing by the time you’ve realised you don’t like what you’re seeing at any given moment. But the flipside of this downside is, there’s more than enough of the movie Dante was trying to make, where you do like what you’re seeing.

Dante commented of Larry Doyle’s screenplay (as interviewed in Joe Dante, edited by Nil Baskar and G…