Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Shape of Water

I just got to this one in time to start it - I got the showtimes for it and Darkest Hour confused and thought I had twenty more minutes - and was kind of amused at the mix of trailers it got. Because it has a sea monster, there were trailers for horror movies; because it is sort of magic-realist (he said, knowing that term has a more specific meaning than just "fantasy that won't commit to a mythology" but seldom getting it just right), it got previews for boutique stuff. Not a lot of the horror was really doing it for me, and we're starting to see those previews a lot. I've seen Thoroughbreds, so the trailer hits me with a weird mix of "they seem to be misrepresenting it a bit" and "this is kind of what people should expect before it goes sideways" with maybe a enough Anton Yelchin that people will be disappointed that it's sort of a small role. And then there was Island for Dogs, and, man, this sort of whimsical animated movie with dry humor and dogs in a kooky future Japan should really be my thing, especially since I've really liked director Wes Anderson's last couple movies. Instead, I find myself just thoroughly repulsed by it, whether because I want my off-kilter takes on Japan to come from actual Japanese people or because there's no one great performance or self-deprecation that leaps out of it. Maybe that will change with the actual movie, because I'd really rather not go back to hating Anderson's precisely-measured smug material.

Meanwhile, I'm not sure exactly where I land on The Shape of Water. It's good - very good - and it's well worth noting that while writing the review, the good stuff was what leaped out at me and demanded to be recounted. It does, however, exist in a weird in-between place in a lot of ways; it doesn't have that sense of desperation that hung over his Spanish films even though that seems to be the mood he's trying to achieve, but it's also a little wobbly on the level of delight at the period setting and the movie references del Toro throws in. He loves this stuff, almost can't help but declare he loves this stuff, but knows that it's not really the place.

Plus, it's got some issues toward the end:


The bit where the creature has magical healing powers feels like an almost obligatory piece; the movie could do without it for all that it matters and it's the sort of thing that encourages the audience to think about how this sort of thing works on the one hand and wonder if maybe the guys who want to examine him should maybe continue their work, albeit with less torture and vivisection. It's a thing that feels like it could be thematically important (he heals all the hurting characters!), but isn't quite there. I do like how it feeds into the beautifully ambiguous ending, made specifically so by Giles's narration, especially considering how as a visual artist, it is easy for Elisa's scars to become gills to him. It's a nifty touch, maybe not hugely significant, but well-done.


Anyway, don't let those slight issues put you off. It's a beautiful movie, and I don't write something as long as the eFilmCritic review for movies I don't like.

The Shape of Water

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 December 2017 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, DCP)

There's been a stark difference between the dark fables of Guillermo del Toro's Spanish-language movies and the pulpy entertainment of his English-language work, and while there are moments of crossover (Mimic has the feel if not the depth, while Hellboy II has some carryover from Pan's Labyrinth), it's been fair to wonder if there just might be factors inherent to the different filmmaking environments that push him in different directions. The Shape of Water suggests that maybe this is not the case - more than anything else he's made in English, it's a work with ambitions beyond just fun, and a successful one.

It's a film about lonely people. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is established as such even though there are clearly people who are quite fond of her, with living arrangements and a "morning" routine built around not just having no partner but no expectation of one. Sure, her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is fond of her, but he's gay (and therefore must approach new attractions very tentatively in early-1960s Baltimore). She works the swing shift as a cleaner at a nearby Defense Department facility, where her being mute since birth means her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a big talker, doesn't get interrupted, but the racial difference would make friendship outside of work awkward. Of course, Zelda being black is nothing compared to the "asset" recently brought in - an amphibian humanoid from South America (Doug Jones). He seems feral, mauling keeper Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) at first opportunity, but Elisa secretly finds a way to communicate with it, alarming scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has an isolating secret of his own.

There is in many ways a beauty to be found in this loneliness, even if del Toro never fetishizes it. There's desperation to Elisa and Giles even if their friendship is something beautiful as a result. They often huddle in Giles's apartment watching old movies on a tiny black-and-white television despite living above a palatial movie theater (though it's seen better days and bigger audiences as well), finding it easier to stay there when going outside is so fraught. Hoffstetler's loneliness is forced upon him and messes with his moral compass in ways that fascinate, while Strickland is confounded by his: He feels disconnected from the nuclear family that's supposed to satisfy him and discovers that his work considers him disposable, and it brings out his cruelty. It's no comparison to the creature, presumably the last of his kind, whose well-earned hostility turns to a sort of wonder at anyone seeming fond of him.

It's the sort of often-silent, under-a-bunch-of-prosthetic-makeup performance that Doug Jones has made a career specialty, especially in his films with del Toro, and in a way, Elisa is the sort of woman Sally Hawkins specializes in as well, although to be fair, that the point of her breakout role in Happy Go Lucky was a character working at her optimism makes it much easier to see in her later parts. Still, she's undeniably great at it, putting the extra effort into making Elisa's moments of joy genuine even as she gets to put just as much force into her anger and frustration. Since del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor only give Hawkins a couple of scenes where Elisa gets to explain herself directly to the audience via subtitles, the actress often has to make Elisa's thoughts clear in gestures and body language without over-emoting - after all, being a bit withdrawn is part of her character.

Full review on EFC.

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