There’s a special bit of magic about The Shape of Water, and I was sucked in from the moment I was taken underwater. Director Guillermo del Toro is known for his wonderful storytelling, and his winning streak continues. This monster film takes what you think you know about romance and adds a unique touch involving a woman who is mute and misunderstood creature looking to be loved.
The dry for wet technique del Toro uses to open Shape of Water captivated me. As Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) — “The Princess with no Voice” — gently floats down onto the sofa as she’s sleeping and actor Richard Jenkins narrates, I found myself studying the beautiful set design and being enchanted with the sequence. The film feels classic and is aided by a soundtrack incorporating instruments like the accordion, which only helped immerse me in 1960s Baltimore.
Elisa has one best friend, her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), with whom she sees every day. But she’s routine-oriented: wake up, hit alarm clock, eat breakfast, brush teeth, take bath, pleasure herself, go next door to watch classics as Giles designs art pieces and then head to work. The duo’s friendship is charming. There’s a shared moment, among many, where both tap dance in-sync and I smiled from cheek-to-cheek.
However, the real mystery lies in a creature brought in to an aerospace facility by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a hard-nosed agent looking to impress the top brass in the U.S. military and get ahead of the Soviets. Elisa is a janitor and works alongside Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), her friend for the past decade. They clearly care for each other, and it’s shown ach time Elisa is late for work — which is often. Zelda holds her spot in line so they can clock-in together. It’s quite beautiful, but there’s still a void in Elisa’s life.
Enter our mysterious, beautiful creature played by Doug Jones (Abe Sapien in Hellboy). Immediately I noticed the intricate details of the creature’s design. The gills, the blue skin, the shifting eyes and foreign noises grabbed my attention each time he appeared on-screen. Our starling creature feels human due to Jones’ performance underneath the scales. There’s magic surrounding this character that only del Toro, a magician himself, can bring to life and make me love.
Sure, this isn’t a plot full of complexities. It is predictable and sometimes it tells you what’s going on rather than letting the film speak for itself (a lone blemish in such a great film), but Shape of Water mostly succeeds because of its accessibility. The story being simple allowed me to study other elements, like Dan Laustsen‘s fantastic cinematography and shot selection. Each frame made me feel as if I’m swimming alongside on-screen events. The characters are also beautifully written, with a ripe amount of humor and emotion that transcends the screen and hits my heart.
The acting isn’t over-the-top, but there’s a sense of humanity to these roles in del Toro’s fantasy story. The themes of love and loneliness are common in each of our main characters: Elisa wants a partner and feels Giles isn’t enough; Giles wants to find a boyfriend and struggles with feeling alone; Zelda is married to her deadbeat husband; Richard is a jerk who wants to be loved by his superiors, yet struggles with feeling like he always comes up short. It’s truly remarkable how the film pins these characters against one another and yet finds ways to connect each of them.
Sally Hawkins really took my breath away in some of the more heartfelt moments. I love the fact that she not only used sign language to communicate but also nonverbal communication. Her eyes along spoke to our amphibian friend in some of the deepest moments of the film. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen whenever she was present. Hawkins truly gave one of the better performances of 2017 amidst an all-star cast.
I think it goes without saying that Michael Shannon is usually typecast as the menacing antagonist in many roles, but hey — he’s amazing at performing as the guy you hate. Strickland boiled my blood with comments like, “I bet I can make you squeal” as he spoke to Elisa, or his racially-fueled comments to Zelda. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t catch myself thinking this was such a solid performance by the veteran actor. It only helps that he indulges in some of the more violent scenes we’ve come to expect from del Toro.
There are moments outside of Strickland’s banter that are sure to get under the skin of any decent human beings, seeing as how The Shape of Water takes place in the 60s and white people are still viewing black people as inferior. Del Toro does well to remind the audience that even though this is a monster tale, there’s a certain truth to this world he’s placed us in. The film even displays visceral sex scenes that made some audience members laugh, groan and gasp. Without giving away too much, I didn’t find them off-putting in the slightest, as each served a purpose to further understand the psyche of the character.
Also, there’s a captivating sequence at the end which serves as possibly my favorite movie moment of the year and among del Toro’s best, which helped make this story so satisfying.
In an era full of superhero and blockbuster films, The Shape of Water provides a refreshing take on filmmaking that I fell in love with. Thanks to the unique mind of del Toro, we’re gifted an unorthodox monster film that isn’t just a good monster film — it’s a fantastic piece of art.
I was treated to an advanced screening for the purposes of this review thanks to Allied Integrated Marketing and Fox Searchlight. ❤
The Shape of Water is rated R, runs two hours and three minutes and opens in select South Florida theaters on Dec. 15, 2017.