"The Shape of Water" Review
A mute janitor falls in love with a fish man during the Cold War 1950’s. That’s about as simple as you can describe the plot of Guillermo Del Toro’s new film The Shape of Water. Del Toro has always had an interest in monsters for his films. No matter how scary or deformed they look, they always have human traits that connect us with them. In this film, Del Toro has crafted his most likable monster yet and tells a totally original story (trust me) that is part romance, part thriller.
We follow the life of a janitor without a voice, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins). She works in an underground facility alongside her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who talks enough to make up for Elisa’s silence. One day a secret test subject is brought into the facility by the psychotic Strickland (Michael Shannon). The subject happens to be an amphibious-human hybrid creature that was found in the Amazon and has been brought back to America in order to be dissected and studied. After interacting together a few times, Elisa and the creature begin to form a special bond of love. Elisa recruits her neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and a sympathetic Russian spy (Michael Stuhlbarg) for a plan to break the creature from his chains and allow him to return home.
The plot carries both a whimsical and serious tone to it. They mostly go together well as we get a fairytale that isn’t afraid to embrace a childish feel with adult actions. However, GDT goes overboard once with a song and dance number that comes close to throwing the whole film off during its most poignant time.
This is one of GDT’s most mainstream films (apart from Pacific Rim) and is a great way for people unfamiliar with his work to be introduced. He expertly uses his monster experience to make a film that carries a realistic and fantasy tone.
He also makes a very brave film that doesn’t shy away from unconventional material. We get to see Michael Shannon having sex after his fingers get severed, political assassinations, and a self-pleasuring scene involving an egg timer. Oh, Elisa and the Amphibian Man also experience, let’s just say, a special physical connection.
The most impressive aspects of the film come from the behind the scenes work. The camera is brilliantly manned by Dan Lausten. It flows freely between the sets to give the film a romantic fantasy feel, but he also uses constant rain, dark colors, and confined spaces to make it feel like a cold war noir.
The production design is also outstanding as each set piece is designed with care and precision. It’s astonishing that this film was made for only $19.5 million because it looks like it cost more than triple that amount.
The actors create one of the best ensembles of the year. They all carry their weight when matched together and make their characters interesting to watch. Hawkins is perfectly cast and leads the show with her signature shy look. She gives the most compelling and passionate performance of the year, all without saying a word.
Richard Jenkins also gives an award-worthy supporting performance as Elisa’s neighbor, Giles, who is going through a midlife crisis in terms of his career and sexuality. His scenes with Hawkins are astounding, but the ones with him alone aren’t as great and take away from the important story.
While not breaking any new ground, both Michael Shannon and Octavia Spencer do what they do best. Shannon gives his trademark evil, unhinged authority performance. Spencer does well in a performance very similar to her role in The Help.
Michael Stuhlbarg also continues his amazing 2017 (also in Call Me by Your Name, The Post, and on TV with Fargo) by giving a great performance in the little time he has. Shoutout to Doug Jones as well for playing the Amphibian Man. He gives an endearing performance that brings warmth to his naturally cold-blooded character.
The Shape of Water is easily one of 2017’s best films and deserves all the Oscar nominations it will get. Every person in the cast and crew do their job exceptionally and create a breathtaking cinematic experience that makes you feel like a kid again while also giving you the stuff your adult mind wants to see.