As a horror fan, I am often questioned on my taste in horror. To some, watching the horrors of the genre is unfathomable. Sure, horror holds quite a few subsets that leave fans divided as to what makes a good horror movie. But for the most part, we tend to like the thrills that the genre offers.
It’s movies like The Shape of Water that bend what we like, twist it to something that can be mainstream, and stretch the definition of what we call horror. The Shape of Water is a monster movie (and after its wins at the Golden Globes a well liked monster movie). It is not traditional horror. It is a slow burn love story and a story of acceptance. It is a beautifully shot and well acted. However, its insistence at black and white definitions of good and bad are its downfall. It’s a good movie…but it’s not masterpiece I expected.
The Shape of Water is set in 1960s America. As the country’s paranoia over the Communist looms, the US and Russian governments are striving for world dominance. Secret government facilities exist, and this is where Elisa (Sally Hawkins) work in housekeeping. Elisa is mute and communicates throughout the movie by sign language, body language, and even dance. She lives a lonely life and has only a few friends.
She is assigned to clean a lab containing a strange fish monster. It was found down in South America by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). As he and the fish traveled home, they “spent time together and found they don’t like each other much”. Strickland is interested in dissecting and investigating what makes the monster able to survive. Elisa immediately begins communicating with the creature. Her inability to talk to others does not matter to the monster and she begins to feel it is more man than monster.
As time begins running out for the monster, Elisa enlists her closeted neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and her work partner (Octavia Spencer) to help break out the monster. As they plan their breakout, a Russian scientist has infiltrated the lab and is attempting to take the creature so the Soviets can have it. Because Elisa is mute, Spencer is asked to communicate on her behalf to us. She handles the friend/comedy break character well. Jenkins chemistry with Hawkins is amazing, and Michael Stuhlbarg shines as the deep cover agent.
What bugged me about The Shape of Water is that Shannon’s role (and well, every bad guys role) was clearly to be evil. Guillermo del Toro tries to toy with making Strickland a tortured soul but it’s a little too late and Strickland’s actions don’t really show the softer side del Toro was going for. The higher ups in the governments are the same. They are just not made to be complicated characters and it effects how interesting they are. It’s really frustrating (especially with Shannon’s performance). He’s creepy as ever and owns Strickland. It’s even more frustrating because Jenkins subplot deals with how we let ourselves be perceived and how we really are. Strickland wants to be perceived as a good guy but is given no good actions (maybe that’s what del Toro intended?)
Maybe it’s that television has gotten better at exploring stories and subplots because The Shape of Water feels rushed. The setup is great but the love story and escape sequences are both rushed. They are done well…they just feel rushed. There’s a strange (but well received) musical number in the middle. In context of the setup, it makes sense. However, it may go down as a sharply dividing moment in the movie.
There is a reason that the movie is garnering high praise and awards though. Del Toro shoots everything so beautifully and the performances are wonderful. The story is interesting and the cast assembled brings it to life. It has its weaknesses and I think that horror fans will argue whether this movie belongs in the horror genre (much like del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth). Don’t skip this one.