THE SHAPE OF WATER
By Nathan Evans
Like Edgar Wright, Quentin Tarantino, or Christopher Nolan, Guillermo Del Toro is an auteur. You go to his films to get something that no other director working now or in the past is able to give you. Del Toro’s latest film, ‘The Shape of Water’, may be a retelling of the classic fable ‘Beauty and the Beast’, but the manner in which Del Toro relays that story is wholly unique; even if the film pays obvious homage to the classic Universal horror film, ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’.
‘The Shape of Water’ stars Sally Hawkins as a lonely, mute woman named Elisa Esposito. Elisa lives alone in an apartment above a movie theater. She spends her days living through a mundane routine and killing time with her next door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins): an aging, homosexual advertising artist who’s on his last legs in the ad game (the film takes place during the tumultuous 1960’s, just as photographs are rendering ad artists obsolete). Elisa spends her evenings working as a janitor in a mysterious government compound; the purpose of which is never fully explained.
She and her best friend/coworker, Zelda Delilah Fuller (Octavia Spencer), happen to be cleaning one of the compounds many laboratories when a new test subject is ushered into the room by an intimidating government agent portrayed by an actor that’s made it his business to portray the quintessential dangerous scumbag in every film he’s in: Michael Shannon. The agent’s name in question is Richard Strickland, and his test subject is a humanoid fish creature he dragged up from the jungles of South America himself. Del Toro gives a vague explanation for why the creature needs to be studied, something to do with devising a way to prepare human astronauts for space travel, but the creature’s really there to demonstrate Strickland’s capacity for cruelty to those that are different.
Elisa is immediately intrigued by the creature. Through sign language she discovers a way to communicate, and the pair strike up a friendship that quickly blossoms into a romance. When Elisa discovers that Strickland plans to murder the creature in order to study it, she and her cohorts, the aforementioned Giles and Zelda, devise a plan to free it.
Before I sing the praises of ‘The Shape of Water’, I must state the obvious: the premise of the film is entirely ridiculous. The film is clearly meant to serve as a contemporary fable where you suspend disbelief for the things that don’t entirely add up, but I must admit I found that hard to do. It’s something that kept me from being quite as taken with the film as many of the critics I follow seem to be (I don’t think my distaste for creature feature fare helped matters much either). With that said, Del Toro clearly knows how to make a film, and, objectively, ‘The Shape of Water’ is a near immaculate piece of work from an expert craftsman.
Frequent Del Toro collaborator, Doug Jones, portrays the fish monster through a combination of special effects makeup and light CGI touches. Much like how Andy Serkis is the performance king of motion capture technology, Jones is the expert when it comes to realizing practical effects. Though the performance may not be as physically demanding as past roles Jones has tackled, the creature effects are no less impressive than what you might expect from Del Toro and his team. While I had trouble buying the romance between Elisa and the creature, I had no issue with believing a creature like that could exist.
Del Toro’s craftsmanship doesn’t end with the creature design either. Every aspect of his production is top notch. It’s always fun to watch a director’s take on a period piece. The costume and set design faithfully capture the period, while also lending themselves to the film’s dreamlike tone. Elisa’s bathroom alone looks like something that could exist in reality while also capturing the feeling of something Cinderella might find herself cleaning for her evil stepsisters.
Though the film is a fantasy, Del Toro manages to have his cake and eat it too. Every virtuous primary character in the film is a minority, and the film uses that viewpoint to shed light on social injustices our country faced during the 1960’s and, sadly, seem to be facing once again. Whether it be the patronizing disrespect Zelda experiences at the hands of Strickland, the hostility Giles faces at the hands of a crush, the assault on her intelligence Elisa faces as a mute, or the brutality the creature endures at the hands of the military industrial complex, the film has something to say about it all. While the film got me thinking about all of it, it also made me a little too aware of what it was trying to do.
This ham fisted approach shows itself in some of the film’s dialogue as well. I won’t shed light on the context in which the line is uttered, but Strickland’s final bit of dialogue in the film is so jarringly obvious that it nearly ruined the film’s climax for me. It may seem like a minor complaint, and in regards to the film as a whole I guess it is, but it took me out of the movie when I needed to be in it most. Luckily Del Toro recovers with the beautiful and bittersweet final image. An image set to composer Alexandre Desplat’s excellent, haunting, and quirky score.
I’d be remiss if I closed out this review without commenting on Sally Hawkins’ performance as Elisa. I must admit I’m not too familiar with the actress, my only real awareness of her having to do with her critically well received performance in the independent comedy ‘Happy Go Lucky’ almost a decade ago, but I must say she’s utterly fantastic in this film. There’s the obvious bravery of a performer willing to do several nude scenes for a major film release (probably the reason the actress is receiving all of the awards attention), but her skill in portraying a mute character is where the focus should lie. Her performance is studied and accomplished, capturing the physicality of the silent film stars of yore like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. It’s this quality Hawkins provides that lends itself to the black and white vibe Del Toro is clearly going for, and one he expressly taps into in the film’s fantasy dance sequence (a sequence that’s as beautiful as it is unintentionally funny).
I will reiterate that ‘The Shape of Water’ didn’t capture my heart and mind as much as I wanted it to, but please don’t let that influence your interpretation of the film. As I previously stated, the film is masterfully put together, and is no doubt an enjoyable time at the movies. I liked it, but I didn’t love it— rubber suits and monsters just aren’t my thing (unless that rubber suit is being worn by a wealthy physical paragon who makes it his business to crush the teeth of psychotic clowns, or that monster’s a scientist with a rage problem). As a critic I feel it’s my business to treat the films I review as objectively as possible, so I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t tell you to see ‘The Shape of Water’. It’s a strong film that’ll no doubt find itself a competitor during awards season.
RATING: A -OR- 4.5 OUT OF 5
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