Movie review: The Shape of Water

The first movie my wife and I went to see after the Academy Award nominations were announced was The Shape of Water, which had 13 noms, including Best Picture. Right after we came out of the theater, I ran into a couple of friends of mine, and I utterly failed to describe what the heck this film was.

Was it magic realism? Maybe-ish. It is a cold war drama/civil rights metaphor/science fiction tale/love story. Yeah, right, that’s it. I asked my wife, and she said it was weird. That’s correct too.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), who cannot speak, presumably because of whatever caused the scars on her throat, is employed as a janitor in a secret high-security government laboratory. She works with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). They discover something they’re not supposed to know about.

There are a lot of things I liked about the movie. For instance, the relationship between Elisa and the amphibious entity (Doug Jones) who reminded me of the Creature from the Black Lagoon is lovely, especially early on, when they learn to communicate.

My favorite character was Giles (Richard Jenkins), Elisa’s neighbor, an artist who is even more isolated than she is, bemoaning aging as he watched old movies rather than the news. He has an interesting story arch.

What I didn’t much enjoy is the sadistic cartoon villainy of the facilities head, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), though he is involved in the one time I chuckled during the film. (“It’s teal.”)

There’s a sequence near the end, and I won’t describe it. But if I were sitting at home watching it on TV, I’d be screaming at the set, “Don’t do it!” And it plays out most predictably.

Also, there’s a scene where a black couple appears very briefly, designed to Make A Point. Ben Sachs of the Chicago Reader wrote: “The movie‘s worldview is as easy to like as the protagonist and her friends, but [director and co-writer Guillermo] del Toro lays it on so thick that there’s no room for counterargument or even independent thought.”

All good cinema manipulates the viewer, but I felt as though I could see the strings too obviously. I’m glad I saw The Shape of Water, I even recognize why it is so acclaimed, and I bought into the ending. But it was my least favorite of the five nominated films I’ve seen so far (3 Billboards, Lady Bird, The Post, Darkest Hour).

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