Since I first saw the trailer for Guillermo Del Toro’s latest fantasy offering “The Shape of Water” I knew instantly this would be a must see. Sporting the director’s signature style “The Shape of Water” is not a film for everyone, but it is heavily deserving of the buzz that has surrounded it since it won the Golden Lion at the 74th Venice International Film Festival. I finally had the chance to see the film myself over the Christmas weekend and now I’m ready to offer my take. Here is my review of one of my personal most anticipated films of the year “The Shape of Water”.
“The Shape of Water” focuses on a mute janitor named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who lost her voice at a very young age due to injuries to her throat in an unknown incident. Elisa works with her friend and sign language interpreter Zelda (Octavia Spencer) in a 1960s government facility where they see a new specimen, a man-like amphibious creature (played in a suit by Doug Jones), brought in accompanied by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). After Strickland is injured by the creature Elisa is charged with cleaning up the mess at which time she meets the creature face to face, quickly forming a bond with him. Elisa quickly resolves to free the amphibious being with the help of Zelda and her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) while Colonel Strickland remains hot on their trail bent on eliminating the creature himself.
As I said in my opening paragraph I have to warn you “The Shape of Water” is not a film for everyone, nor is it meant to be. A passion project for del Toro “The Shape of Water” draws from classic monster movies and romance stories including similarities to “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Beauty and the Beast” and yet this still feels like a fresh story that demands respect. As with del Toro’s other works like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the “Hellboy” duology, “The Shape of Water” doesn’t skip on the strange and odd imagery including seemingly gratuitous shots of decaying body parts and even female masturbation. Yes, you read that right. I’m not kidding when I say this film doesn’t hold back and isn’t for everyone. But despite how odd and shamelessly artistic it might be there’s just so much to love about this story I can’t help but laud it!
The performances in “The Shape of Water” are absolutely captivating with the central roll being Sally Hawkins as a mute woman who comes to form a bond with the amphibious creature. If you’ve never heard of Hawkins don’t be surprised. Much of her work is more on the artistic side and has earned her numerous award nominations. This performance however is possibly her best to date. Tackling a mute character is hard for even the most accomplished of performers, but Hawkins says so much with literally no dialogue outside of a strange musical number in this film managing to capture everything about Elisa Espositio through emoting and sign language alone. It’s a mesmerizing role that dominates the screen, even outshining the creature itself, and serves as the glue that brings this fantasy tale together. What makes Elisa such a complex and beautiful character is the fact that she truly doesn’t seem to fit in to the world around her, but she always seems to have a glow about her despite her life being mundane and predictable until she meets the creature. She’s carefree of opinions and perception making her the ideal individual to come to the creature’s rescue while the world around her fights among themselves.
Beside Hawkins is Doug Jones who plays the amphibious creature in this movie, known only as “Asset”, and proves once again that there should be a spot at the Oscar’s for suit and motion capture actors to be honored. Jones completely loses himself in his role as the creature, mastering the mannerisms and animalistic tendencies of a being literally out of its element. The creature is incredibly detailed down to the smallest scale and Jones brings both a sense of humanity and a wild and untamed quality to the amphibian to make it more than just a generic inhuman figure. Clearly inspired by previous similar monsters, the Asset oozed personality and charm despite speaking no actual words. Despite the filmmakers doing everything in their power to make this creature more likable than many of the humans we still get brutal scenes that show his imperfection and remind us he is still a wild animal of sorts. The chemistry between Jones and Hawkins is hypnotizing and never before have I seen so much said between two characters with so few words on screen. Even though the Asset and Elisa are literally different species from different worlds they find more comfort in each other than anyone else they have encountered. To put this romance story into one word I’d have to say it’s “magical”.
While he’s not the most complex villain of all time I give a lot of credit to Michael Shannon who plays the Asset’s handler Colonel Richard Strickland. Acting as the main villain of the movie Strickland undergoes an evolution of sorts as the story unfolds with his decent into madness symbolically presented in the decaying of fingers the Asset ripped off and were subsequently reattached. This subtle detail proved to be a great measuring stick for where Strickland was mentally in this film and without spoiling anything I will say we get one great moment in the final act that symbolizes Strickland’s full on decent into vengeful madness. The great part about Shannon’s performance is how well he incorporated ego and a clueless sense of entitlement into the character. At times Strickland is actually an easy man to understand but the more the pressure of his job weighs on him the more inhuman he becomes turning him into the very monster he sought to destroy. Like I said it’s not the most subtle or complex villain you’ll ever see but Shannon, with his gravely voice and intimidating stare, was perfectly cast for the role and always seems to shine when given the chance to play the villain in any project.
While on the surface “The Shape of Water” might not seem to be the most original tale its merits and the approach del Toro took to the story help it stand out as a superior depiction of traditional clichés. We see so many popular tropes in this film from the monster within us all to the star crossed lovers uniting, but every trope feels fresh and fully realized in a manner that sets them apart from past films. It’s almost like del Toro saw every formula and found a new way to perfect it adding a whole new scale to where these kinds of stories can go. The result is a no-holds-barred fantasy love story that might be graphic and uncompromising in nature, but not one moment feels wasted or unwarranted. Yes even the masturbation scenes feel appropriate because they add depth to Elisa as a character showing her seemingly endless daily routine and her self-dependent personality before meeting the Asset.
“The Shape of Water” also serves as a subtle depiction of the relationship of man and nature as well as a much more direct attack on the human fear of the unknown. Let’s face it, many of us don’t blame Colonel Strickland for his seemingly insane acts against the Asset and the beauty of it is that this film makes us think we’d like to avoid becoming that kind of person, allowing us to understand the hypocrisy of man. The story in its entirety is built to create chaos and uncertainty using the world around the characters with the Cold War and other frightening concepts all playing a part in the larger story. However Elisa and the Asset live in a bubble. They only care for the safety of each other and, in Elisa’s case, a few select people who themselves are also outcasts more concerned with outside issues. Elisa however cares about a natural piece of God’s green earth almost as if the relationship between her and the creature is meant to represent the bond that man and nature should have but has been forgotten thanks to our own selfish priorities. This is only one of many underlying themes hidden within “The Shape of Water”, but it’s the one I found most fascinating for me personally and the fact that it takes some digging and interpretation to take such a message away from the film is a testament to its artistic merit.
The only real downside to “The Shape of Water” is its odd pacing. One of my fellow reviewers Adam, from “Should Anyone Watch”, whose blog you can visit here, called the film “deliberate” and I couldn’t think of a more perfect word to describe it. While this aspect of the film throws sharp commentary and moments of harsh reality in the faces of viewers in a way it helps add to the thrills and emotional depth of the movie. However it also worked against it in the sense that “The Shape of Water” didn’t feel quite a smooth or polished as it should have. Everything else about this film was done with meticulous detail in mind and while I’m sure this approach to storytelling was a creative choice by del Toro it made the movie more uncomfortable than it needed to be. Still it did actually ADD to the feel of the story which is a plus, but it just doesn’t feel like this was the kind of uncomfortable we were supposed to be as we took it all in. In an ironic twist the film’s most jarring error actually works, but it robs us of a more polished experience nonetheless.
All things considered however “The Shape of Water” is everything it was meant to be. It’s a magical, mystical, and at times thought provoking love story between man and beast that challenges everything from the movie tropes it embraces to what real love and companionship is all about. Guillermo del Toro provides yet another undeniable masterpiece here with top-notch acting and unrelenting storytelling that is bogged down only by odd pacing that, for better or worse, actually works in its own way. This is not a movie for the casual film fan and certainly not one for those afraid to see some things you probably never expected. This is true cinematic art from start to finish that truly is among the best 2017 has had to offer.