"The Shape of Water" (2017) Review
If we do nothing,
neither are we.
It's an old cliche, but every once and a while, you see a movie that reminds you why you watch movies at all. Not because of some massive technical innovation, not even because it's the greatest story ever told, but because it actually feels like magic. In The Shape of Water, the magic comes from how Guillermo del Toro has combined nearly a half dozen genres together with the kind of ease that makes you wonder why directors have such a hard time even combining two genres. The Shape of Water is a creature feature, a spy thriller, an homage to 1930s musicals, a romance, dashes of body horror, all wrapped into a fairytale that's somehow set in 1960s Baltimore.
The film emanates with a love of... Film. Every scene has subtle and overt reminders that Guillermo del Toro is a notorious film geek, a man whose own home looks like a museum of oddities by his own design. So call the rest of this review the result of a feedback loop, but as someone who loves film dearly myself, it's a true joy to see a movie that loves film as much as I love film, and flip it back on me.
And it's worth saying at this point in the review, this is also a film where a woman has sex with a fish man from the Amazon rainforest.
Mind you, that doesn't bother me at all, but if that last sentence made you recoil in complete and total horror, maybe The Shape of Water isn't for you. But even then, it just might be. The film is so damn magical that it might even win you over.
In case you're wondering what possible scenario could lead to such an unusual romantic encounter, The Shape of Water concerns the life of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a janitor at a military installation. Elisa's throat was damaged at a young age, so she's mute and communicates through sign language. She lives an isolated existence in an apartment above a movie theater with only her neighbor, a struggling artist named Giles (Richard Jenkins), to keep her company. While at work, her only friend seems to be another janitor named Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a black woman who always has Elisa's back.
Elisa's routine is suddenly interrupted when the base receives a creature referred to only as "The Asset," an amphibious man that in no way shape or form is the Gillman from The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Elisa discovers that the Asset can learn sign language, and she slowly falls for the creature. When she learns that the Asset is to be vivisected and killed through surgery by the cruel man in charge of it, named Strickland (man oh man is this guy played by Michael Shannon), she hatches a plan to try and get the Asset out. Oh, and there's a really good subplot involving the doctor who looks after the Asset named Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).
As if the intro paragraphs didn't clue you in, the reason I put that much synopsis into this review was mostly to fill some space, because I didn't just want to write about seven or eight paragraphs of "please see the movie where the lady has sex with the fish man" because I don't know how to get into everything I love about this movie. Half of the joy of The Shape of Water is being surprised by how the film expertly puts its influences together. Its a joy to see Guillermo del Toro reshape 1960s America into a fertile ground for allegory, some of which is subtle, but most of which is pretty on the nose.
In fact, if there is one complaint to be had about The Shape of Water, it's the blunt force nature of its writing, the ways in which the film's dialogue leaves little left to interpretation. This is especially evident in Michael Shannon's character Strickland. But if you know Michael Shannon's work, than you know that he can sell the hell out of that character, and boy does he nail it. Strickland is a walking horror show, and that's beyond the part where he's a racist, sexist maniac walking around with a cattle prod. The horror show part with him... Well, I said there's a dash of body horror in this movie. Let's just say that it mostly centers around him.
All of that isn't to say that Shannon isn't the only actor selling the blunt force nature of the writing, everyone is selling it, so it just works. Sally Hawkins as Elisa is the real star of the movie here, and not just because she's the character the film is putting front and center. Sally Hawkins delivers a powerhouse performance with sign language and her facial expressions, and she even manages to hold her own against a screaming Michael Shannon with sign language.
This is all backed up by incredible cinematography by Dan Lausten that makes the film feels as if the camera floats through the air, a great mixture of original music by Alexandre Desplat and old school music, and some of the best production design in the business (incidentally, if Guillermo del Toro ever decides he wants to make a Bioshock movie, give him all the money in the world to do it and then some).
The only warnings I'd give about the movie beyond the already mentioned "lady has sex with the fish man" stuff is that one sequence can come off as extremely corny. Personally, I loved it, but I wasn't shocked when someone in the audience I was with went "You've gotta be kidding me" when it happened. That's a silly warning, but the real warning I want to give concerns the movie's violence. If you've seen a Guillermo del Toro film before, you already know that he tends draw from the most literal interpretations of European fairytales, where whimsy and amputations of people's feet come hand in hand. If you don't know that, just know that there's some pretty stunning violence in The Shape of Water. It's not extremely over the top and there's not a ton of it, but there's enough to leave a lasting impression.
I feel awful that I didn't see The Shape of Water in time for my Top 15 Films of 2017 list, because it would have easily been a Top Five Contender. This film doesn't have thirteen Academy Award nominations for nothing, it's a legitimate masterpiece from Guillermo del Toro. I'd go as far as saying that it might be his best movie, and it's at least his best film since Pan's Labyrinth. As off-putting as parts of its premise might sound, I beg anyone who reads this to give this film a chance. It's just so rare to see something that feels like magic, that despite its darker elements feels so full of life and heart. I truly love this movie, and I want the world to see it.