The Shape of Water
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Doug Jones
There has always been something tortured yet romantic about the characters in Guillermo Del Toro’s films. Whether the plight of a little girl who escapes her war torn existence by discovering a fantasy world in “Pans Labyrinth”, the fascination of an old man who finds a destructive device that will give the owner eternal life in “Cronos”, or the wandering earthbound red demon who is trying to find acceptance in the human world in “Hellboy”, Mr. Del Toro handles fantasy, horror, action, drama, and comedy with characters that are traversing the struggles of their tortured existence but also approaching it with an abundance of love and passion.
These same sentiments could be distinguished towards Mr. Del Toro’s enchantments with filmmaking, mixing his fandom and artistic capabilities with stories that are many times combinations of the best and worst aspects of reality and fantasy. “The Shape of Water” is the director’s crowing achievement, a film that composes all the influences that have shaped and molded the auteur’s work over his entire career.
In 1960’s Baltimore a research facility has just received a mysterious creature prime for experimentation. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) has captured this monster (Doug Jones), an amphibious humanoid with sharp teeth and webbed extremities. Strickland, who carries an electric cattle prod, maintains a torturous hand over the creature while awaiting instruction from his government contacts. Elisa, a nighttime cleaner for the facility who is also mute, stumbles into a violent mess that puts her face to face with the creature. Where the scientists and government officials see a monster, Elisa sees something wholly different.
Guillermo Del Toro gathers his influences from numerous places like classic film, folklore, culture, literature…the list is vast. “The Shape of Water” will resemble the Universal monster movie “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” but only on the surface level characterizations. Here the director lavishes in atmosphere and composes characters in a central story that are longing for an escape, even if only for a moment at a time.
Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones, beneath impressive practical effects, craft an enchanted love story that is built upon expression and movement. Their relationship starts with a chance encounter, one that opens an empathetic door for Elisa to help the creature. This blossoms, wordless, over the sharing of food and the experience of music. Ms. Hawkins and Mr. Jones operate these characters as if in the middle of a complicated dance, the film actually succumbs to this indulgence in a beautiful moment. Ms. Hawkins, with her quiet yet powerful demeanor and striking eyes, provides a performance that is filled with affection. Mr Jones, even underneath extensive makeup, moves with sensitivity.
The always dependable, and completely intriguing in nearly everything the actor does, Michael Shannon shows up to the play the villain. But, as with most of Mr. Del Toro’s work, the antagonist is painted with as much complexity as the protagonist. Mr. Shannon embodies the realism of the world with the character, the normalcy of the era but also the deviance that exists within it. The gender abuse with the dominance that men have over women at this specific time, both the emotional and physical abuse, are displayed through Strickland’s demeanor in his bright suburban home and within his professional home in the gloomy depths of the facility. It’s a reflective touch that is unfortunately timely in the present day.
Del Toro composes all the characters with an arc that has a beginning and end, even small characters like the ones played by Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins are offered moments to shine. These stories further accommodate and enrich the journey Elisa is going through. It’s a difficult feat to fit these secondary characters so seamlessly into such an already dense character driven story, but Del Toro accomplishes this with ease.
The director has proven throughout many films that he can find beauty in even the darkest of places, so when something so tender and touching is on display, as it is in “The Shape of Water”, the film is filled to the edges with elegance. While in some moments these stylings have the tendency to be a tad overbearing, it’s nonetheless exquisite to watch. The film feels texturally like a mix of a film noir, classic horror, and a musical all at once. The camera moves with the fluidity one would feel while watching water flow and splashes with greens and blues that resemble being underwater.
“The Shape of Water” is visually stunning and filled with excellent performances. Guillermo Del Toro composes another fairytale, this time with a romantic touch that permeates far beyond the premise might suggest. It is movie magic at its finest.
4.50 out of 5.00