The Shape of Water – 2017
Written and Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
There is a distinct fearlessness that goes with the words “Written and Directed by Guillermo Del Toro.” It’s a feeling that this guy really doesn’t go by any set of rules with which we are accustomed and comfortable. We know that with his films we are going to see a world in which he is completely inhabited. All one has to do is be able to let go a little. His heart is a true one. Dedicated to weirdness and cinema. The suspension of disbelief will bring you right where he is wanting us to go.
This story is a fascinating one, with a very simple premise. It’s the early 1960’s. A young mute woman named Elisa (Hawkins) works with her friend Zelda (Spencer) as cleaners at a government facility. One day, they see a new “asset” (Jones, looking almost exactly like Abe Sapien from Hellboy) brought into one of the containment spaces. He’s got scientists that accompany him, as well the Colonel that captured him. This Colonel Strickland (Shannon) is in charge of the research team. He is not a good man.
Elisa has a neighbor, Giles (Taylor) who is an out of work artist who has more than that to overcome in the current climate. He and Elisa spend much time together, watching musicals and discussing their lives. The deft touch that Del Toro uses here brings back an earlier time, when confirmed bachelor had a certain meaning that did not define you to your true friends.
Given that she can hear but cannot speak, Elisa spends a lot of time listening and observing. It’s with these traits that she becomes acquainted to and friendly with the asset in his Amphibian holding tank. She sees him as more than a freak. He, in turn, sees her, too.
The story is absolutely nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s done with a grace and beauty that few can muster like Del Toro can. So many images will stick in your mind upon seeing this film. The muted greens and powerful reds will not be the same.
In somewhat of a departure for Del Toro, he also gets some incredibly apt performances from many of the principal characters. We’ve come to expect depth from Taylor and Spencer, but their performances are not straight out of the box. They seem to inhabit the world they are in, but are not consumed by the time they are passing through.
Hawkins is a wonder as Elisa. Her beauty is in her expressions, and her ability to make us see her condition as completely normal, because she seeks out those unique individuals like herself. She and Del Toro do a wonderful job realizing that no matter how alone one feels, if they open their mind, many other good people feel the same way.
Shannon’s performance is good. Better than anything he’s been in since Take Shelter. Part of the challenge for him, though, is that outside of the work he continues to do with Jeff Nichols, he continues to play freakish GI men bent on destruction. He adds nuance to these evil roles, but he’s still pretty much the same guy.
To counter and enrich his performance, however, Del Toro creates an interesting Russian spy character, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. His performance gives a unique bent on the separation between state and humanity. Stuhlbarg is excellent in this choice role and it is nice to have a twist in the Spy vs. Spy tales of the time period.
Another strength of the film is with the score of Alexandre Desplat. It’s haunting when it needs to be, hopeful when we need that, too. The sounds completely inhabit the visuals.
By making a basic plot so well acted and with so many specific and touching moments of truth, the film is very nearly perfect. There are some scenes that will disturb younger viewers (it is rated R for a reason). For me one scene that completely takes me out of the movie is a completely unrealistic attempt at a romantic scene where towels are used to prevent water from leaking out of overflowing bathroom spouts. It’s clear what Del Toro is attempting to do here, especially when he merges this (like many scenes) with a movie theater, but it just falls into wacky hi jinks territory.
If you like Del Toro, this is the best work he’s created since Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s regrettable that he’s not received more resources to create with, but seeing what he’s done here with such seemingly limited funds, I really don’t know if it matters. He just needs to bring more of his universe to ours.
(****1/2 out of *****)