MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Romantic Fantasy/ Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer, Nick Searcy, David Hewlett, Nigel Bennett, Stewart Arnott, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, John Kapelos, Morgan Kelly, Wendy Lyon/Runtime: 123 minutes
I think it can be safely said that for those people out there amongst you who get immensely frustrated whenever a slice of cinema like Saving Private Ryan is classified as a “film” yet The Expendables 2 is consistently labeled as simply a “movie”, I think you will be quite pleased to know that the movie I am reviewing for you today, 2017’s The Shape of Water is one that has no desire whatsoever to be saddled with either label. By that I mean yes this slice of cinema is an incredibly made and phenomenally acted cinematic journey through an avenue located in the imagination of the more giftedly eccentric film helmers of the past 4 decades easily. At the same time, this is also a slice of cinema that provides you, the viewer with a heck of a lot more in the way of movie elements than a lot of other movies released the same year. By that I mean here is a movie that, among other components, manages to combine a silent heroine, a setting that is smackdab in the middle of the Cold War, and a mysterious creature that looks like the offspring of the Creature from the Black Lagoon and glows like a child’s night light. At the same time though, this slice of cinema is by no means a feature-length monster of the week episode from The X-Files. Rather, this film is also a romance saga that proves to be quite complicated because the two…..organisms in love with each other rely more on non-verbal communication with each other to express their feelings rather than the essay long texts and emojis we tend to use and take for granted in our day to day romantic lives. Suffice it to say that this is a genuine mix of elements that even for the most skilled of film helmers out there might prove to be a bit too much to handle. Then again del Toro has never been one to shy away from a challenge nor for that matter has he EVER been viewed as “just another Hollywood director”. I tell you this because what he has managed to do with this slice of cinema is no more and no less than grade-A remarkable. Indeed the cast may be fantastic and the work behind the camera nothing short of incredible, but that’s not even the best part of del Toro’s aquatic take on Beauty and the Beast mixed with a Cold War thriller akin to Three Days of the Condor or a film of a similar ilk. Rather, it’s how here is a slice of cinema that is immensely engaging, but which also manages to restore our amount of love and acceptance for the people around us despite being set at a period in history, eerily much like today come to think, where the level of acceptance of people who were of a different race, nationality, or even sexual preference than our own was perilously and tragically low.
The plot is as follows: The Shape of Water gets its riveting story underway as a man by the name of Giles tells us over a submerged apartment full of furniture that I hope is insured against water damage that he hesitatingly has quite the unique story he would like to share with us. A story he claims deals with the final days in the reign of a fair prince, of a princess without voice, and about a terrifying monster who attempted to obliterate everything. From there we see that the story proper begins in Baltimore of 1962 where we are introduced to our main character, who happens to be Giles’ dear (and perhaps only) friend and next door neighbor, Elisa. Elisa is a mute yet not deaf young woman who, despite her handicap of being unable to verbally communicate with anyone, spends her days spending time with Giles who has his own peculiarities about him and her nights working as a skilled cleaning lady alongside her other dear friend, to say nothing of talkative co-worker Zelda at a top-secret research facility. Yet as routine as her life has been up to this point in time, we soon see that something unexpected is just around the corner. Something that takes the shape and form of a top-secret asset that comes into the lab in a giant tank of water and which we soon discover is some kind of humanoid creature. Yet whereas everyone else just treats the creature as a thing to either be afraid or to be dissected and analyzed, we see that Elisa instead chooses to approach the creature with a degree of empathy instead. It is perhaps that empathy incidentally that is perhaps what results in a fairly uncommon comprehension to say nothing of attraction to start to form between our heroine and this critter. One that may begin with her simply giving him a hard-boiled egg, blossom through the utilization of music, but which soon culminates in our heroine proclaiming in her own way that the creature, for all his animalistic ways, is the only being that sees her as complete and that she loves him for it. As a result, we see that she aims to try and free the creature from the facility. Unfortunately for our heroine and her friends whom she ropes into assisting her, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that there a pair of agendas at play that threaten to make their plan, to say nothing of the creature and his continued survival, that much more problematic. One whose objective is just plain vivisection and whose representative takes the form of a slimy and almost reptilian government operative by the name of Strickland. The other whose objective is to indefinitely contain the creature for further study and whose representative is a marine biologist with one or two secrets of his own by the name of Dr. Robert Hoffstetler. Suffice it to say can our heroine and her beastly love find a way to not only get him out of the research facility, but also be together forever, or is this one romance that is less a gender-reversed Splash and more Romeo and Juliet the Water Ballet Edition? That I will leave for you to discover for yourself dear reader….
Now I’m not gonna lie to you dear reader: there is without a doubt a heck of a lot in the way of both undeniable love and wonderfully eccentric care put into this film behind the camera. Not just in terms of any one thing mind you. Rather, it’s how this slice of cinema had a budget of max 20 million dollars and yet it somehow looks more vibrant and rich than a lot of the bigger budgeted studio blockbuster films from the past 10 years. I mean I’m not kidding when I say dear reader that del Toro has made me think with this film that he literally went back in time to early 1960s Baltimore, filmed the movie there with the technology of today, and came back with the movie all set and ready to go for release. Indeed not only does del Toro’s cinematographer on this, a Mr. Dan Laustsen do a wonderful job of making the world of the film feel like one that is enchanting and almost timeless in a sense yet consistently being encroached on by spots of darkness, but we also see this wonderful visionary also has a similar appreciation as this film’s helmer for the Hollywood of days gone by and as such brings the black-and-white musical number of a dream our main heroine has vividly to life. By the same token, it should also be said that this slice of cinema has some truly wonderful work done by the make-up and effects department. Not just in the absolutely magnificent design for the creature (though this IS a del Toro film….that is definitely nothing new), but also in terms of some of the more gnarly things that occur in this film like a man yanking out two digits (read: fingers) on his hand that have started to shrivel up pretty bad or a man being grabbed by a bullet wound in his cheek and dragged for example that will easily make you wince in a perversely delightful mix of phantom agony and revulsion respectively. Yet perhaps the most noteworthy element that this slice of cinema is operating with behind the camera is how it manages to actually be a fairly timely and relevant slice of cinema which deals with things that we are dealing with even today. Indeed this includes such fairly obvious examples as a race riot being seen on the TV and then followed up with a character calling his cattle prod his “Alabama how-de-do.” Yet there are also smaller moments in the film like when we see Strickland whining to someone that he just can’t afford to be in a negative headspace at the moment that really does feel like what we see nowadays when a domineering bully quickly transforms into a whiny and sniveling punk when things start to go downhill. Yet lest you think this commentary is anything new for a del Toro film I honestly would argue that is not the case. I say that because if you really take a moment to go back and watch a lot of his movies like this, Crimson Peak, and especially Pan’s Labyrinth to name a few examples, del Toro has long made it clear that although his movies have otherworldly creatures in them that they aren’t what he views as the biggest threat; rather, the worst threat in del Toro’s eyes is how horribly people can treat other people and suffice it to say that he continues operating with that distinct subtext here as well in a way that is not overwhelming by any means and very much welcome especially in a slice of cinema of this type.
Of course, all the work behind the camera wouldn’t hold even a 1/8th of the weight that it does if the work in front of the camera wasn’t able to measure up. Thankfully, that is not a concern this slice of cinema has to worry about since everyone in front of the camera is absolutely wonderful. This starts with the role of Elisa and I feel it should be said right here and now movie goers: Sally Hawkins is no more less and absolutely phenomenal in the role. Indeed here is an actress who for a long time has made her mark on the land of movie magic in everything from awards-earning short films to the Paddington movies as well as a vast assortment of terrific efforts in the realm of indie filmmaking along the way. Suffice it to say that in this slice of cinema Hawkins does a wonderful job of, without saying a single word (with one sequence being the exception) manages to showcase all the pathos let alone soul that is very much a part of this story that del Toro is regaling us with. This same principle I feel can also be applied to Doug Jones who for a while now has been viewed as one of the best in the land of movie magic that you can get when you need an actor to play a truly otherworldly critter. Indeed, as our Creature from the Black Lagoon of sorts in this, Jones does a remarkable job at not only bringing the creature vividly to life, but also in giving him (?) a vibrant amount of genuine heartfelt love as well as decency and acceptance for the beauty of the story in a way that makes the creature seem eerily more human than some of the actual human characters in the film, but I think that’s the point. Suffice it to say that this is a character that could have quite easily become a cliché and brought down the rest of the film as a result, but Jones manages to make it a truly wonderful addition to the film instead. Yet we also see that backing up both Hawkins and Jones wonderfully is a genuinely terrific support cast. This starts with Richard Jenkins who I have always felt is one of the more underappreciated character actors the land of movie magic has given us. Indeed in the role of Elisa’s friend and neighbor Giles, we see that Jenkins is able to bring a delightful degree of both humor as well as relatability to the part in a manner that I honestly feel not a lot of actors could have. I also feel that this very same praise can be gifted to the equally as delightful Octavia Spencer. Yet in addition to the previously mentioned attributes, we see that not only does Spencer, in her role of Zelda, prove to be consistently funny, but she also manages to possess a wonderful sense of comedic delivery that helps make every funny line of hers land right where it is supposed to. Meanwhile we also get a delightfully complex performance from Michael Stuhlbarg as a character who is torn between a secret he carries as well as his duties as a scientist who desires to research whilst also preserving the creature for the greater good. Finally, we see that in the role of this slice of cinema’s main antagonist, Michael Shannon is a genuine force to be reckoned with. Indeed the character of Strickland is one that is ruthless, sexist, despicable, and easily is a cinematic representation of just how low some people were willing to take the American belief system at the time of the Cold War. Indeed here ladies and gentlemen is the real monster of this story and I promise that this is one villain you will love to hate from the moment he first appears to his very last few minutes of screen time. Suffice it to say that each and every one of the gifted performers in this slice of cinema no matter how big or small their part all manage to do an absolutely wonderful job in bringing this tale so vividly and wonderfully to life.
All in all when one looks at the slice of cinema that is The Shape of Water, one can see that this is a film that has a whole host of inspirations behind its creation namely fairy tales akin to the ones told by the Grimm Brothers, Cold War-era thrillers, to say nothing of the old school Universal monster movies of days gone by to name but a few. At the same time, we can see that much in the same vein as del Toro’s film from 2015 Crimson Peak, there is also a beautifully resonant vibe of idealism to say nothing of heartwarming nostalgia lurking just under the surface of this slice of cinema albeit this one is lacking a fair bit of the uncertainty in regards to tone that the latter example has quite unjustly been slapped with by many a critic. Be that as it may be, the fact remains that by possessing a wonderfully constructed narrative that manages to reverberate in a surprising manner with its audience, this slice of cinema is able to operate as a truly delightful showcase for a truly dynamite cast all of whom manage to give exceptional performances. Yet regardless of if he was deliberately aiming to show-off some unnerving counterparts to things in this film that are bit more present day, there is no denying that this slice of cinema, more than any other film he has given us, is easily the best example of what constitutes as a “del Toro movie”. A fact best showcased by the fact that The Shape of Water is a slice of cinema that is constructed both behind and in front of the camera in the way that only a film made by a major studio could conceivably be able to pull off, but that from the moment it gets underway runs and feels at its heart more like an arthouse slice of cinema that we are blessed to be getting to see released by a major studio. A pairing incidentally that manages to create one of the most magical cinematic balancing acts from the past decade of movie magic I have had the pleasure of seeing. Suffice it to say that when you incorporate the phenomenal skill being displayed by both sides of the camera in equal measure what you get is more than just a magical and genuine must-see slice of cinema. Rather, you also get a much needed reminder that there is still a magic to be found in cinema. Sure it might not come around as often as we would like, but when it does we must treasure it. Suffice it to say this is one of those films we must treasure. Make of that what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Shape of Water “2017” a solid 4.5 out of 5.