I have almost always liked the idea of Guillermo Del Toro better than I have liked his films. I mean, he is a sincere fanboy, a lover of some of the same cinema as I am, and, I mean, anyone with ambitions to tackle At the Mountains of Madness (or a remake of Nightmare Alley!) has to get some respect. I like the clips I've seen of him speaking - he has an agreeable manner and face; and as producer he has supported some films I've enjoyed well-enough, like Mama or Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. But to be honest, I was blown away by neither Cronos nor The Devil's Backbone; I missed Blade II. and while I did like Mimic and Hellboy (and even Hellboy II), I haven't cared about anything else he's directed. Pan's Labyrinth was beautiful to look at and appeared to have its heart in the right place, but it didn't really engage me emotionally, viscerally, or intellectually. It might move me more on subsequent viewings, and might be a film that requires more than one sit-through to really appreciate, except it's hard to motivate yourself to watch a film a second time when your initial reaction, when you saw it theatrically, was "meh, this is overrated and overhyped." Pacific Rim was even worse - the very essence of an empty blockbuster, which utterly failed to engage me in its stories or characters. It was just a big unwelcome noise in my face. I might have gotten more out of a Transformers film, if I had ever brought myself to watch one. Crimson Peak was okay, but only just; I never bothered watching it a second time to see what I missed when I nodded off, and I didn't keep the copy I had.
All the same, Guillermo Del Toro has quite a name for himself in genre films right now, and I WANT to like him plenty, so I went with some excitement to see the critically praised The Shape of Water the other day. The theatre was packed. Our predispositions were definitely positive: neverminding the 93% positive on R/T - which means very little to me - or the proclamations that it is his best film (or "best since Pan's Labyrinth" - hmm), Erika and I had both enjoyed Sally Hawkins in Maudie, which we've seen twice now. Hawkins reminds me of a young Pat Highsmith (and would be a great choice for a biopic of her). And we both really like Michael Shannon and Octavia Spencer; we both have enjoyed Richard Jenkins in things (especially, for me, Bone Tomahawk) and the fact that feminist film critic and "Flick Filosopher" MaryAnn Johanson has been expressing reservations about the film (I believe in advance of seeing it) for having its female lead have sex with the monster had me very curious to engage with it critically.
Turns out there's not much there. The production design is beautiful, of course, and the leads - especially Shannon, in the meatiest role - are all great. But these things, and Del Toro's obvious good intentions, to craft a tale of a lonely, alienated woman who identifies with and comes to love a monster, and to make embracing the monstrous a kind of redemptive option for all those on the margins, sort of in the manner of (the vastly more interesting and engaging) Nightbreed - are simply not enough to make the film exciting. Hawkins' character is undercooked, with all her character traits (being mute; masturbating in the bath; even her fondness for hard boiled eggs) seeming less about making a rich human figure out of her than about advancing the plot and motivating her choices and actions. Similarly, she has marks on her neck which are never explained, but which come in very handy at the climax. Hawkins does her best to make us care, compensating for her character's lack of spoken dialogue with an expressive face and subtitled sign language, but there still just isn't enough to make her an interesting, rich human figure. Instead, she's a symbol of purity - a victim, a martyr, and ultimately a heroine, but never fully realized or fully human. Even Octavia Spencer, as her friend and fellow cleaning woman, is given a more believable and entertaining role. Del Toro has obviously designed Hawkins' character to make her decision to make love to the monster believable - which is, obviously, a place he has to get to in the plot - but a few timid shots of her frigging herself in the bath aside, he doesn't really enter her erotic life at all, and when the sexy set piece (in a flooded bathroom) finally arrives, he treats it with a misty romanticism that would make a superb centerpiece of a romantic musical - from "singing in the rain" to "fucking in the flooded bathroom" - but -
- I mean, I'm trying to think of how I might have cared about the film more, and I think if I had been inside or interested in Hawkins' character's desire, if she had seemed a horny agent of her own weird choices, maybe like Molly Parker in Kissed - the film might have been more interesting. If Del Toro had the slightest eye for the erotic, if he was approaching this as Nightbreed by way of In the Realm of the Senses or something - he could have been onto something. But he doesn't make the sex scenes breathe with any real understanding of sex or sensuality. He almost seems afraid of them, like he's mostly worried that kids won't be able to watch if he gets too kinky.
He should have been more afraid they'd be boring.
And for thinness of character, the amphibian man played by Doug Jones is a very moving "monster," but if he's got a rich inner life (besides being, again, a pure victim and then saviour) we don't much see it. Like Hawkins, he's more or less mute. Unlike her, he's given the chance to do one thing - involving a housecat - that might compromise his holiness, but Del Toro spends more time on the monster's remorse than his actual action, since he doesn't want (I presume) to alienate the audience. (Cronenberg is much much better at making monsters we care about). Richard Jenkins is thinly written, as well (gay failed advertising artist, rejected by the world, drawn into Hawkins' plot). It's nice to see a mute, a middle-aged gay man, a black cleaning lady, an ineffectual and deeply compromised bookish scientist, and a "monster" uniting to fight the powers that be - but the by-the-books feelgood parable about being compassionate that results, while it might make the stuff of a well-intentioned fairy tale for children, is nowhere enough to make you care about the characters. None of them even have to go through much in the way of transformations to become heroes, either - they're all kinda pure and good from the outset, with the only challenge they need to overcome being their fear of standing up for what's right. Which they all do, which you know they're going to do, so... who cares? The victims of the world get to feel good and pat themselves on the back and be reassured of how virtuous they are, and how nasty the mean white authority figures are, but - politically laudable intentions don't always make for an interesting film. Mimic is ten times as involving as The Shape of Water, and appears to have a politically inexcusable subtext to it, that women shouldn't have careers in the sciences, but should rather raise families instead...
In the end, the most interesting performance, the richest character, the person you end up most excited to see on the screen - is the bad guy, Michael Shannon, whose main direction from Del Toro seems to have been to be the most Michael Shannon he can be. He's great. No one Michael Shannons like Michael Shannon, and he indeed maxes out his Michael Shannonness here; he could only be more Michael Shannon if he paused occasionally in his villainy to flog himself with a belt (but that's been done before, by him, already, so...). His performance alone very nearly makes the film worth watching.
But not really. It's pretty to look at, but in the end, all you're left with is Del Toro's good intentions, packed into a story, to be unpacked by the viewer, at a cost of some $13 for a ticket. It would have been a better children's book. (Or if he'd had courage to really amp up the eroticism, it could have been a superb weird sex film). I would rather have spent the $13 on seeing Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri again, which is ten times the film this is.
Meantime, Mary Ann Johanson - one of the few interesting film critics I'm aware of these days - has been shitting all over Bright, on Netflix (which draws a mere 28% on R/T), but I have to admit, while it is trivial in the extreme, Bright was vastly more entertaining and even interesting than The Shape of Water. Charles Mudede captures some of that. Johanson might be right on in a few of her criticisms of the film - it is certainly silly as hell, and it does draw on some very broad stereotypes. But at one point in the old Wood contra Cronenberg debate, Cronenberg points at the example of Larry Cohen - whose It's Alive Wood had been favourably comparing to The Brood - and says something like, "would you rather watch a horribly made movie with laudable politics, or a well-made film that takes you to uncomfortable places?" (It's a very loose paraphrase). Of course, in the case of The Shape of Water and Bright, both films are very well-realized visually, so it's more like, "Would you rather watch an entertaining and engaging film that may be politically problematic as hell, or a politically admirable film with the human complexity of a slightly kinky Hallmark card?"
I know which I'll pick. Hell, I'm even more interested in THINKING about Bright, which, while it may not be that well-intentioned, is at least doing things that aren't obvious, that actually REQUIRE you to think about them a bit. Even the action of contemplating whether Bright is politically contemptible is more interesting than the cookie-cutter feelgood politic of The Shape of Water, from which I took away nothing more profound than a desire for my money back, and which left me thinking about nothing more profound than how the film might have engaged me more.