"The Shape of Water" is a simple-minded, heavy-handed, racist movie, blessed with terrific, retro 1950s-60s set design. White, heterosexual, Christian, American men are evil. The more unlike a white, heterosexual, Christian American man you are, the better you are. If a white, heterosexual, Christian, American filmmaker had made a film that depicts Mexicans or women as pure evil, and their opposite as pure good, that white man would have to do a major apology tour to get his career back.
"The Shape of Water" wants to be a progressive movie that bashes white men and elevates women and South American river gods. You've been really troubled by Hollywood's racist and sexist treatment of South American river gods, haven't you? In fact, though, "The Shape of Water" is sexist, too.
It stars forty-year-old Sally Hawkins, a serious actress who is not a great beauty. She plays Elisa Esposito, an Hispanic cleaning lady. Wow, you are thinking, this is great. A mature woman, a cleaning lady, the lead of a film! Any hope you had is dashed in the opening scene.
The film is about a minute old when Sally Hawkins removes all her clothing, appears full frontal naked, displays her A-list-quality assets, and performs a sex act on camera. Yeah, so much for elevating women. That she uses a kitchen timer to time her sex act is just an added bit of kink for the perverts in the audience. Oh, another thing. Elisa can't speak. So you get a silent, naked leading woman. What's not to like?
After turning his lead into just another porn star, Guillermo del Toro makes Elisa painfully boring. She doesn't do much of anything, other than clean, cower, and fall in love, without any motivation whatsoever, with an amphibious, anthropoid, Latino deity. She has no discernable personality. She is a poor, sad, victim. Screw that.
Elisa is surrounded by men who are movers and shakers: a crafty Russian spy, a gifted artist struggling to resurrect a formerly successful career, and an Amazonian river god whose touch can heal and who does to a pet cat what all cat-haters wish they could do to pet cats. Elisa mostly mopes and has sex with herself and aforementioned river god. Guillermo del Toro, please do all women a favor and stop making movies with female leads. Your male characters are much more dynamic and compelling.
The river god is held captive by Colonel Richard Strickland, a white, Christian, heterosexual, American man. Now, I know you have begun screaming and rushing the exits. Nothing is more terrifying than this creature. Strickland is completely unbelievable. He finds the river god. He tortures it, on camera. These scenes are not fun to watch, unless you are a sadist, and really have it in for Hispanic river gods.
Strickland wants to kill the river god. Does this make any sense to you? It made no sense to me. Elisa has no motivation for falling in love with the river god. Strickland has no motivation for hating it. Why would this man devote his life to becoming so skilled that he could capture a river god, and then spend all his time randomly torturing the river god and then killing it? Anyway.
Again, Elisa is pretty much of a nothing-burger, except for how good she looks naked. Lucky for her, she is surrounded by super competent, heroic men. One is a Russian Spy. This makes him virtuous because it is the Cold War and "Russian Spy" equals "opposite of American." One of the good men is gay. Being gay makes him virtuous because straight people are evil. These two do most of the grunt work of moving the creaky plot forward.
Oh, yes, and did I forget to mention this? There is a Magical Negro, played by, who else, eat-my-doo-doo Octavia Spencer herself. You know what this black woman gets to do to move the plot forward? She *speaks for Elisa.* That's right. That's it. She's a sign language interpreter. While white men – who are actually *good* white men because they are gay or Russian spies – move the plot forward, one woman gets to get nekkid and the other woman gets to provide subtitles. Oh, Mr. Del Toro, you are such a friend to women you should win an effing Nobel Prize.
Did I mention that the movie is boring? Once you get its message – that straight, white, heterosexual, Christian men are the embodiment of evil, and anyone not like them is pure – you just have to sit back and let that moral pound you in the head like a hammer, or like the flopping fin of an amphibious anthropoid river god being tortured by an evil white man.
What the movie has going for it: terrific set design. If you are into 1950s and 60s retro kitsch, this is your movie. There are vintage magazine ads, diner signs, cars, and clothes. The color green appears repeatedly. Evil white man eats green hard candies and drives a teal Cadillac. Good gay man eats lime Jell-O pie. You get the idea. Pretty quickly. After that, the movie has nothing to offer.