Screenshot: The Shape of Water Fox Searchlight

The Missing Voice in The Shape of Water

Editor’s Note- The Academy Awards is March 4, 2018. We have asked our resident Movie Reviewer, Wells Thompson, to review several of the movies up for Academy Awards leading up to the Oscars.

It’s not often that we remember which films were nominated in any given year. After the awards are over and the winners are chosen, films aren’t usually described as being nominated for best picture anymore, unless it’s a memorable snub or a really unexpected entry.

I bring this up because no matter who wins Best Picture this upcoming Sunday (probably The Post), it’s definitely noteworthy that The Shape of Water* is being nominated for 13 awards, over half of all possible categories. For reference, the most Oscar-nominated film in history was Titanic with 14, so it’s worth looking at what makes this film so highly recognized and decorated, even outside the context of the upcoming ceremony.

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water is a magical-realist fairy tale set in the cold war surrounding a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins*) and her relationship with an amphibious humanoid creature (Doug Jones) that’s being kept as a specimen by the lab she works in. If you’re familiar with Del Toro’s previous work, then nothing I’ve just written should surprise you; this film is covered with his signature style from the dark greens and blues of the cinematography* to the fantastic creature and costume design* that make the most absurd elements of the story feel completely real.

The most impressive aspect of the movie by far is the acting. Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins* are pitch perfect for every scene they’re in and Sally Hawkins says more with no voice than most actors do in their entire careers. It’s a film worth watching just for the acting, and there is quite a bit more to see in this somewhat well-crafted film.

All of that said, I find myself unable to give The Shape of Water the kind of praise and recommendation it seems to deserve. I wanted to love the film going into the theater and, after thirteen nominations, I certainly expected that I would be singing its praises as much as any other critic, but I’m just not able to say that it deserves the attention that it’s getting.

I’m reminded of a musical allegory called the fifth man. In a barbershop quartet, there are only four singers, but the resonance of all four can create a sound that seems as though five are singing. The Shape of Water has incredible performances, an impressive visual and musical style*, fantastic directing, and gorgeous editing*, but it never comes together to be more than the sum of its parts. In a sense, the fifth man never shows up, and it’s a shame because this movie feels like it’s capable of being so much more than it is.

That’s not to say it’s bad or that it doesn’t work, it certainly does. The story is sweet and it accomplishes what it wants to do better than most, it just lacks the excellence of a film that deserves 13 Oscar nominations. Ultimately, it’s hard to say exactly why it doesn’t click the way it should. It could be the tone that tries to retain a sense of innocence while including some out of place gore and brutality, or the speed at which the central relationship develops, going from just having met to all-out love in what feels like no time at all.

Or maybe I’m being overly critical and have too high of expectations, but something about The Shape of Water didn’t work as well as it should have. It’s frustrating personally because I thought this was the movie that would match or exceed Del Toro’s best works. Pan’s Labyrinth is a personal favorite and when this film received the praise that it did, I’d hoped he finally delivered something of that caliber again. As a result, when the credits rolled, I felt disappointed not only in the movie but in myself for ruining an otherwise fine experience with my own overblown expectations.

While I was personally let down by The Shape of Water, I still recommend it as a solid movie with stellar performances and a gorgeous aesthetic. If you’re expecting a new favorite film, a new best from Guillermo Del Toro, or a movie that deserves a near-record number of Oscar nominations, then, like me, you’ll probably walk away unsatisfied. But, if you watch this film on its own merits with no expectations, you’ll have a sweet, enjoyable experience that will, at the very least, give you a happy ending and a new found respect for Sally Hawkins.

 

*Given that this film is nominated an absurd number of times, I’m using an asterisk to indicate a nomination.

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Wells is a freelance writer specializing in fiction and narrative commentary. A graduate of the University of Central Arkansas’s English program, Wells spends much of his time at Blue Sail Coffee, frantically writing down articles for this website or editing a novel that’s just one fifteen more drafts from being complete.

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