Review - 'The Shape of Water'
Compared to his other monster brethren, the Gill-Man has been regarded as the Aquaman of the Universal Monsters; the butt of the joke. Additionally, he has not made a physical movie appearance since The Monster Squad (Hotel Transylvania counts, I guess) and I’ve missed him dearly since. Color me surprised when I heard Guillermo del Toro was been bending over backwards to get a movie greenlit featuring the Gill-Man but this time he wanted to turn the Creature from the Black Lagoon into a romance. Gimme gimme gimme. Through The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro and Fox Searchlight Pictures have made a better monster movie than Universal Pictures could ever hope to dream of in their “Dark Universe,” and also one of the best fairy tale romance films in recent memory.
The Shape of Water stars Sally Hawkins as the mute character Elisa Espotsito, whom we follow through a monotonous daily routine of getting up, masturbating, making chitchat with Richard Jenkins’s Giles, and going to work to at the usual top secret government facility while listening to her friend Zelda Fuller, played by Octavia Spencer, talk sass about her husband. That routine suddenly changes when a new guest is submitted to their facility by the authoritative and antagonizing Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon. When Elisa discovers the new occupant is a humanoid amphibian, played by Doug Jones, she forms a unique relationship with the creature and her world changes forever as she discovers what it means to human and what it means to be a monster.
The Shape of Water is visually stunning and emotionally moving from beginning to end. Every set piece, every character, and every subplot culminates into a satisfying experience I’ve rarely witnessed in a two hour film. Every time the film changes course to a supporting cast member I kept thinking that there was gonna be no resolution to their scene or character arc but every person and their actions in this film matter.
The film takes place in the 60s, and it couldn’t be more immersive with its set design and costuming. It even goes a step further with including contemporary social commentary on minorities whether it be about disabilities, race, sex, or sexual orientation. Every character is unique in that respect and representative of the hardships they faced then, providing a great parallel to the the hardships they continue to face now. The characters who support Elisa are the voices of the voiceless. They are the little guys who are constantly stepped on but they out maneuver and outsmart even the most “brilliant” of government officials.
Elisa herself, Sally Hawkins, is wonderful in this movie and her physical acting is top notch. Some of the most emotional moments are more impactful by how hard she’s trying to convey her feelings through sign. Sally brings a level of credibility to this movie I don’t think could have existed in another actress’s hands because of the material. I felt her fall in love with the creature. There was also a more adventurous temperament to her character than I was expecting and she's much more confident in who she is and doesn’t treat her disability as a crutch, more as a gift and an advantage.
The Gill-Man is of course incredible from a practical costume standpoint but I think Doug Jones does an excellent job branching human movements with those of something inhuman. If you’ve seen Hellboy, there is a little bit of Abe’s character in the Gill-Man, which felt on purpose, but there’s enough innocence to this character that still feels like an original performance.
The supporting cast is just as important to the plot as Elisa and both Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins play their roles wonderfully. Richard Jenkins is an actor I’ve seen in so many movies and he’s always bringing his A-game and it’s no different here. He has a crush on someone as a little subplot and you can see that romantic twinkle in his eyes every time his muse is on screen, offering some sweet sympathetic smiles and laughs. Octavia Spencer offers additional laughs as she represents the more vocal opposite to Elisa if she were married and regularly talks smack about her husband. The best part is that everything she says about her life is warranted. Additionally, she becomes more than just a vocal piece and protects Elisa from harm quite often. Michael Stuhlbarg is great as well but his character plays a pivotal role and has some of the most tense scenes so the less I say, the better.
Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland character is one of the best movie villains I’ve seen on screen in a long time. Rather than the character being evil for the sake of being evil, The Shape of Water explores the aspect of how men of that certain era were byproducts of the American Dream and the expectations of male masculinity, nurturing them into misogynists and racists. We see Richard’s interactions with his family and how he seems to have a caring wife and wonderful children but his demeanor around them is very deadpan, like none of it would be there without him. Never once does Strickland view his life, job, or the Gill-Man critically and everything in his eyes can only be viewed one ignorant way. This character bounces perfectly off of our cast of misfits.
Guillermo Del Toro’s style and storytelling has never been better. I was hypercritical about Crimson Peak and how that movie was incredibly stylized but lacked any real substance. Thankfully, The Shape of Water succeeds in every aspect that Crimson Peak couldn’t. Everything matters to the plot and even though you know how the movie’s going to end, the journey is incredibly engaging to watch. One of the main plot points that was presented in the trailer transpired quite early in the movie made me scared the movie was going to end soon but then it kept going and I fell even deeper in love. Del Toro nails the romance and beauty of love with Elisa and the Gill-Man. I can see how some might be put off on a human falling in love with a non-human but if you’re for Beauty and the Beast and the interspecies relations with characters in, for instance, a Mass Effect game, then you shouldn’t be complaining here.
Though The Shape of Water takes place in the United States, the film does feel incredibly European, not just because of Del Toro’s direction but because of the incredible score by Alexnder Dusplat and its treatment of sex. The fairy tale whimsy of the strings, pipes, and accordians bring an Amelie-like quality to the film and it's certainly a soundtrack to download and listen to at home. How sex is presented is quite tasteful, is never exploitative, and feels realistic in how its something to cherish and have fun with rather than something to obsess over or be repulsed by. It's treated like an every day part of life rather than a taboo.
I figured I would like The Shape of Water because of my love for Creature from the Black Lagoon but I didn’t expect to love it. At every turn, I expected to dislike something, but the movie kept surprising me. I laughed, I cried, and I cheered for the love between a woman and a Gill-Man and I could not thank Guillermo del Toro enough.