Shape of Water review Sally Hawkins Doug JonesYear: 2017
Director(s): Guillermo del Toro
Writer(s): Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Region of Origin: US

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 119 mins

Synopsis: A lonely janitor’s life is turned upside down with the discovery of a classified experiment. (Source)

The Shape of Water brought me to tears. It’s an overflowing abundance of beauty and emotion that solidifies an inarguable fact: no other filmmaker in history has loved creatures and monsters as much as Guillermo del Toro. It’s this unbridled adoration of misunderstood beasts that makes his latest the crown jewel in his body of work. This is absolutely del Toro’s masterwork, a clever fish out of water story in more ways than one, and an intimately personal work of art that captures a time and place in flux. Every frame is dripping with stunning visuals, melancholy and urgency, using the past to illuminate both the best and worst that mankind is capable of. This is an important fairy tale for our times, and a cinematic gift from the mind of a craftsman with a big heart.

Things center around a mute janitor named Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who works at a top-secret government laboratory in the early 60s. Elisa’s apartment is located atop a movie theater, where she lives a quaint, unremarkable life led by a steady rhythm of mundane repetition. Still, she feels satisfied with what little she has. Things change when a sensitive asset is brought to Elisa’s facility. The asset is a seemingly intelligent humanoid being with fish-like attributes. It’s been ripped from its natural habitat for the exploitation of its extraordinary abilities, and is ruthlessly tortured by a facility superior named Strickland (Michael Shannon). Elisa, however, instantly forms an unexpected bond with the creature. The pair instinctively seem to understand each other despite an obvious divide, and with Strickland bent on destroying the creature for study, Elisa sets a plan into motion that will change her life forever.

Shape of Water review Michael ShannonThe biggest twist in the story, is that while it does feature a beautiful creature, the monster in the film is the ugliness of humanity. It becomes clear right away, that the story’s not-so-distant time period is a striking reflection of modern day for better or worse. Racism is rampant, religious ideals are used as an excuse for prejudice and people in power would rather destroy things they can’t understand. But while del Toro’s adult fairy tale is painfully cognizant of man’s evil, it’s above all a film lined with hope and a love that breaks boundaries. It’s because del Toro’s film is such a painfully accurate depiction of evil, that the romance tucked within shines like a beacon of light in a dark world. Not to mention, the plot is also breathtakingly paced. It continually subverts genre structure to find horror in the unexpected and a love that sneaks past the cracks. There’s also a sincerity that is endearing and full of wonder, even as del Toro manages to include frank depictions of sex and kink amongst some irreverent humor.

Of course, we couldn’t talk about a Del Toro film without expressing how his story is delivered through an impeccably crafted world. If you’ve been following the director from the beginning, you’ll recognize an amalgam of his previous ideas, all coalesced into an enchanting new journey in which nothing is out of place, and no tiny detail is superfluous. Del Toro is a true visual master, from the way he captures the nostalgia of a time and place, to the top-tier creature effects which give his humanoid amphibian a warmth and eccentricity that is mesmerizing from start to finish. Needless to say, the film thrives through rich visual nuance, making this something that I absolutely feel like I need to see again, just to allow its atmosphere soak in to my being.

Shape of Water review Sally Hawkins Octavia SpencerAnother surprising element of the film, is how a triptych of characters reflect del Toro’s central creature. Del Toro deftly navigates between these characters, illustrating how their actions towards the creature spill out of their professional lives and into their personal ones. At the heart of it all, is Sally Hawkins’ Elisa. Hawkins is the story’s blinding light, an immovable force of innocence, purity and strength. Even without traditional dialogue, Hawkins’ performance emotes and speaks through body language and deed, free of any false filters. She’s an absolute powerhouse, and this is one the most profound performances of the year. Michael Stuhlbarg plays the outpost’s resident scientist, and is torn between his heart and duty. Stuhlbarg’s measured composure and silent stoicism add to the film’s complex shades of grey. On the other end, Michael Shannon is as evil and sleazy as you’ve ever seen him. Shannon’s Strickland is slimy to the bone, upholding a sense of self-righteousness and ego that is heartbreaking and savage. He’s as evil and Elisa’s Hawkins is resolute. Not to be outdone, Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins turn in supporting roles that are just as irresistible, adding charm and levity to the film’s sometimes oppressive tension.

Adding to his already iconic body of work, Doug Jones’ creature performance is a knockout. The creature, officially dubbed Amphibian Man is intentionally kept at distance, yet Jones gives him a humanity that helps to bridge two worlds. His performance is alien and full of turmoil, yet sensitive and fragile. Together with some top tier visual effects, Jones’ character breathes life into those around him.

Really, it’s unfair to turn Del Toro’s latest into words, because its most potent aspects transcend anything that can be said. Shape is an experience that can only truly be felt, and is cinema in its highest form, from the technical precision on display to the heart wrenching images that compose each frame. In a world rushing to destroy itself, it’s important that a film like this remind us of the good in the world, and that it’s never too far away, if only we’d dare to look for it.

SG