The Shape of Water

shape-of-water-rev The Shape of Water  (2017)    Fox Searchlight/Drama-Adventure-Fantasy    RT: 123 minutes    Rated R (sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, language)    Director: Guillermo del Toro    Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor    Music: Alexandre Desplat    Cinematography: Dan Laustsen    Release date: December 15, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lauren Lee Smith, Nick Searcy, David Hewlett.

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 Welcome back to the weird and wonderful world of Guillermo del Toro’s imagination. In the 11 years since the brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth, the Mexican-born filmmaker kept himself busy with more commercialized (but no less visually interesting) product like Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak. His latest The Shape of Water is a return to form. It’s a dark adult fairy tale inspired by a multitude of classic movies, the most obvious ones being Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It also recalls E.T. with its group of unlikely heroes trying to save a non-human friend from sinister government forces and the romantic angle of John Carpenter’s Starman. This is the movie del Toro’s fans have been waiting for.

shape of water Set in 1962, a narrator wonders aloud what to say about “the princess without voice”, the heroine of this particular tale. That would be Elisa (Hawkins, Blue Jasmine), a mousy mute woman who works the night shift as a janitor at a research facility in Baltimore. Her daily routine consists of waking up at 9pm, polishing her shoes, boiling some eggs and masturbating in the bathtub before catching the bus to work. She lives in an apartment next door to Giles (Jenkins, The Visitor), a closeted gay man and gifted artist forced out of his career in advertising.

 Life changes in a heartbeat. It happens for Elisa the day “The Asset” is brought to the laboratory by the brutal and sadistic Colonel Strickland (Shannon, Midnight Special). The Asset (Jones, Pan’s Labyrinth) is a half-man/half-amphibian creature captured in the Amazon and brought to the US to be studied. Treated like a god in his native land, he’s seen as a monster and a freak of nature by Strickland and his superiors who want to dissect him. Strickland, who sees him as an “affront”, takes great delight in torturing him with a cattle prod.

 Elisa, on the other hand, sees the beauty in this beast. She connects with him over hard-boiled eggs and the music of Benny Goodman. They come to trust each other and a friendship blooms between them. Then Strickland receives orders from his superiors to cut the Asset open because it will further their research on human space travel. Elisa overhears their conversation and decides to help her new friend escape from the facility with some help from Giles, her co-worker and friend Zelda (Spencer, Hidden Figures) and the sympathetic Dr. Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man) who thinks the Asset ought to be kept alive for further study.

 The escape plan works (NOT a spoiler!) and Elisa hides the Asset in her apartment until such a time when rainwaters flood the nearby canal and the creature can make it safely to the ocean. During that time, the Asset is the subject of an intense manhunt. Strickland’s superiors demand that he recover the Asset or else. Also, Soviet spies have their own reasons for wanting to destroy the Asset. Yes, there is a spy among the characters. Meanwhile, Elisa and the Asset take their relationship to the next level. Yes, this means exactly what you think it does.

 While the visual aesthetic of The Shape of Water places it squarely in the realm of fantasy, elements of early-60s reality (e.g. racism, the Cold War) occasionally seep in. I get what del Toro is going for here. The heroes of the movie- Elisa, Giles and the Asset- don’t conform to what was considered “normal” back then. They belong in another time. So it is that Giles always has old movies starring Alice Faye and Shirley Temple playing on his old black-and-white TV. It’s preferable to the images on the news of black people being beaten and firehosed by police. Elisa’s inability to speak makes her, in the eyes of many, less of a person. She communicates through sign language which is either translated by Zelda or through subtitles. Her apartment is bathed in various shades of green. What I’m getting at is these characters don’t fit in to the “real world” and have thus created a fantasy world for themselves.

 Sometimes reality rears its ugly head such as when the counterperson at Giles’ favorite pie joint stops their conversation to throw a black couple out. It’s a jarring shift from the movie’s dark fairy tale-like feel and an obvious parallel to the prejudice the Asset faces because of his appearance. But he only looks like a monster. Inside, he’s kinder and more decent than many of the humans he encounters during his stay in the US. The real monster in The Shape of Water is Strickland whose home décor is a bright nightmare version of Mad Men. He purports to be a decent, God-fearing, patriotic American but he’s nothing more than a xenophobic bully. He explains that humans are made in God’s image, not this creature that stands on two legs.

 Can somebody tell me why Michael Shannon hasn’t won an Oscar yet? This guy is an amazing actor, one of the best to come along in last ten years or so. He consistently turns in strong performance and the square-jawed, tightly-coiled Strickland is no exception. Even at home among his wife and two kids, he looks as though he’ll snap at any moment. He’s positively scary in The Shape of Water. Hawkins turns in her finest performance ever as dreamy Elisa. It’s absolutely fitting that she lives above a movie theater where she can hear whatever picture happens to be showing. It’s yet another contributing element to the fantasy world she opts to live in. She evokes silent screen stars like Charlie Chaplin in how she conveys her emotions through gestures and facial expressions rather than dialogue. Spencer adds great comic relief as Zelda with the way she comments on what’s going on at any given moment.

 I was glad to see that del Toro went old school with the Asset. Instead of CGI, it’s an actor in three hours worth of make-up. It’s definitely the right way to go. Jones does an amazing job as the creature who becomes luminescent at times. While hardly a monster, the Asset will occasionally slash an arm, bite off fingers or eat a pet cat. The make-up effects in The Shape of Water are superior; I can definitely see another Oscar win in that category (like Pan’s Labyrinth). The cinematography and art direction are also awesome. I love the look of the picture from the sets to the recurring images of water, present in nearly every scene. The opening shot of an apartment submerged in water is a great way to start tings off. The score by Alexandre Desplat enhances the mood of the film. While not quite as good as Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water is still del Toro’s best work in years. It’s not for everybody (especially young children) but it’s definitely worth seeing. 

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