The Shape of Water (2017)

I’ve been interested in this film since I heard that Writer / Director Guillermo Del Toro was passing up directing duties on the sequel to his dumb-but-fun, battle mechs-vs-monsters flick, 2013’s ‘Pacific Rim’, in favor of this far smaller ‘passion project’. Del Toro is another of those directors who’s visual panache alone will put my ass in a theatre seat, especially when he indulges his dark and macabre imagination along the way. Almost all of his films, going back to 1993’s ‘Cronos’, have impressed me on some level…and ‘The Shape of Water’ was no different.
Taking place in the late 1960’s, we are introduced to ‘Elisa’ (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning lady with a timid disposition and very few friends. She works as part of the janitorial staff at a large, secretive aerospace company, a part of which is dedicated to housing government ‘assets’ of a somewhat mysterious nature. One day, her and her cleaning partner ‘Zelda’ (Octavia Spencer) witness the arrival of what can only be described as an ‘Amphibian Man’ (Del Toro regular Doug Jones), a caged humanoid captured in South America by Federal Agent ‘Strickland’ (Michael Shannon), who has also accompanied the creature to the facility to safe guard it’s existence, especially from the pesky Russians. As time goes on, ‘Elisa’ finds herself inexplicably drawn to the living oddity and, realizing that the clearly sentient beast is in mortal danger, sets about planning the sneak him out and set him free, with the unlikely help of ‘Zelda’, her kindly, closeted neighbor ‘Giles’ (Richard Jenkins), and a strangely-compassionate Russian agent named ‘Dmitri’ (Michael Stuhlberg), who’s posing as a doctor, and who also sees the value in keeping the poor monster alive.
I liked this movie. I could easily see this being an unofficial sequel to 1954’s classic ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon’, had they captured the Gill Man and brought him back to the US for invasive research purposes. Aside from the obvious fantastical elements, at it’s core, there was a twisted but somehow still charming love story, brought to life largely through the effective physical acting of Sally Hawkins, as ‘Elisa’. Admittedly, I’m not very familiar with her body of work, but she pulled off the unconventional character beautifully with a brave performance (see: lots of suggestive nudity), giving her many small nuances and a healthy range of emotions, that all had to be conveyed silently. I can also apply similar praise on the rest of the cast too. Octavia Spencer was funny as the concerned coworker who gets caught up in the scheme. Michael Shannon was a menacing bastard when he needed to be, while also having a slight ‘goofball’ edge to him. I also liked the turn that Shannon’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ co-star Michael Stuhlberg brought to his ‘Russian spy with a heart’ character. There was something refreshing about the way they handled ‘Dmitri’, a statement that also applies to how Richard Jenkins played his quietly gay graphic designer character ‘Giles’. I liked the way Del Toro wrote and directed ‘Giles’ to simply be his true self, whenever ‘Elisa’ was around, regardless of the social taboos of the time period. And of course, Doug Jones as another of Del Toro’s strange monster characters was expectedly cool. I couldn’t help but to be reminded of Jones’ turn as ‘Abe Sapien’, from Del Toro’s own ‘Hellboy’s 1 and 2, another amphibious humanoid, only with FAR more culture and understanding than this barely-a-step-above animal character.
The story, probably due to the smaller budget ($19 million?), is refreshingly simple, largely taking place in only 4 or 5 key locations. There is some intrigue and bloody violence, especially where the espionage angle comes in, but for the most part it’s the various character interactions and the emotions that result, that keep the narrative going.
On a technical level, this movie is solid, with a very cool, very ‘Del Toro’ aesthetic layered on. There is some gorgeous underwater cinematography (that opening shot!) and there’s an otherworldly greenish blue sheen to the lighting (often off-set with warm oranges or yellows) and camera-work, further enhancing the murky underwater motif. If nothing else, this movie looks beautiful. The costumes, sets and props all worked to make sure we never felt like we were outside of this odd, dark fairy tale version of 1960’s Baltimore.
If I had to make any kind of complaint, putting aside the wacky, unsettling idea that a sexually-repressed, handicapped woman would seduce a wild fish dude, there was one scene that I had to roll my eyes at. Glossing over the fact that this movie is undeniably a sinister fantasy film, with many fantastic elements at work, there was one scene where ‘Elisa’ stripped nude for Fish Dude and proceeded to flood the bathroom where he was being hidden, after jamming only a couple towels under the door. In no time at all, the room is nearly full to the ceiling, with the two of them floating along, having their connection there in the submerged bathroom. I didn’t buy that the door would hold or that the room would be so water-tight as to allow for such aquatic, bestiality-derived fun. It’s a total nit-pick, but for an instant, I was pulled out of the movie by my own inward scoffing.
All in all, I really liked ‘The Shape of Water’. It’s another of those adult-toned fairy tales that Del Toro is SO good at delivering, and one that had heart at the center, and all through the 2 hour run-time. It’s technically masterful, with a cool, underwater-themed look that acted as an effective backdrop to the weird love story that emerges from the drama of this poor (but dangerous) monster’s arrival and subsequent escape, with various ideological ideas, and the goons promoting them, shaping the sequence of events around our main characters. The acting is superb, with well defined characters not needing to indulge in a bunch of heavy-handed exposition to get the stories point across. It’s not a movie bristling with action, but there are some cringe-worthy scenes of violence and gore (that bullet, followed by fingers, through the face scene…ugh!) that will keep the fans of the Sick Shit entertained as well. While I appreciated the lush visuals on The Big Screen, ‘The Shape of Water’ is a sweet enough and perilous enough love story, with a good dose of ‘WTF?!’ on the side, that searching it out when it streams or hits Blu ray is something I can certainly recommend…assuming you can handle things like severed fingers, female masturbation and lots and lots of hard candy sucking along the way.

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