Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

The Shape of Water

Grade : A+ Year : 2017 Director : Guillermo Del Toro Running Time : 2hr 3min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

It’s genuinely unfortunate that I had other things on my mind as I watched Guillermo Del Toro’s wonderful new fantasy, because then I could have truly soaked it in and let it wash over me, the sublime beauty of his Cold War-set drama. That said, by the end, I was still in tears, I had witnessed every frame of his film, and it took its place with his best work to date (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Devil’s Backbone”).

I’m sure that I can find it in an interview somewhere, but I’d be curious to know how long Del Toro has had the idea for “The Shape of Water” in his head, because it feels like a full-formed idea that has just required somebody to give him the funding. I can see Del Toro watching Universal’s “The Creature of the Black Lagoon” for the first time, and coming up with this idea of a film where not only is the creature a sympathetic being, but also has a mute janitor where it is taken captive by man fall in love with it. (The script DOES say it was captured in South America.) That really is the bulk of what you need to know about the story, and, if you’ve followed Del Toro’s career, you can imagine what he does with it in his screenplay with Vanessa Taylor.

Del Toro’s films, even ones like “Mimic” or the “Hellboy” films, cannot be boiled down to such simplistic terms, however. “The Shape of Water” is set in the 1950s, and we first meet Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) as she wakes from her sleep, after narration by Richard Jenkins (and a striking image of her apartment under water) has set the mood. She stops her alarm going off, masturbates in the bath, fixes herself lunch, takes some to her next-door neighbor (Jenkins’s painter, Giles), and goes to work as a janitor at a government facility in Baltimore in the 1950s. She is mute, but through sign language, is capable of great depth of conversation with Giles and Zelda, her co-worker played by Octavia Spencer. One day, a mysterious tank, and a mysterious creature, are brought into the facility under the watchful eye of a government spook (Michael Shannon’s Strickland) and scientists, led by Michael Stuhlbarg’s Dr. Robert Hoffstetler. Elisa is immediately taken by it, and finds reasons to be cleaning the room it’s in whenever she works, and she begins to communicate with it. All the while, we learn more about how the creature (called Amphibian Man in the credits) came to be here, and why, leading to an intriguing Cold War political story playing out, side-by-side, with the story of Elisa and her connection with the creature.

If nothing else, “The Shape of Water” is the film wherein Doug Jones, Del Toro’s long-time collaborator under makeup and prosthetics (although he’s done the same for many other filmmakers over the years), enters the same conversation we’ve been having for 15 years now with regards to Andy Serkis and performance-capture CGI- what’s it going to take to get him an Oscar? Not to take away from what Jones has done over the years, not only in Del Toro’s films as the Pale Man and the faun in “Labyrinth,” and Abe Sapien in the “Hellboy” films, or his work in a film like “Hocus Pocus,” but I feel like Amphibian Man in this film was the first time he had been given the chance for a performance of depth and real imagination on the level of Serkis’s work as Gollum and Caesar, and you cannot take your eyes off of him. He is so fluid and natural in his physical movements that it makes sense that a role like this would suit him best, although it wouldn’t work without a great partner in Hawkins. Her striking look is ideal for a silent role, as you can see her fitting in effortlessly into a film from Keaton and Chaplin in the silent era, and she is capable of expressing much just in her face, even if she is the only one in the room. She is a delight in this role, and we cannot take our eyes off of her, and get sucked in to her world, and seeing her with Amphibian Man, and the way she lights up having found a kindred spirit; seeing her with Zelda, and how they are able to enjoy a messy job; and seeing her with Giles, and watching as Jenkins (so good, as always) and her support one another when they find themselves bumping up against the difficulties of life- they are probably my favorite pairing of performers and characters from 2017, although when Del Toro- who shows an affinity for Old Hollywood musicals throughout the film (having them on in Giles’s apartment when he and Elisa hang out)- finds a moment between Amphibian Man and Elisa where she can express her voice, it might challenge the emotional reunion at the end of “The Last Jedi” as my favorite moment in film from the past year.

That I’ve spent so much time devoted to the story and characters of “The Shape of Water” as opposed to the technical merits of the film is a credit to how right Del Toro got the storytelling aspect of this film. By now, if you don’t think Del Toro is going to give you an amazingly-detailed world to inhabit in his films- whether it’s the Cold War era of this movie, or the Gothic mansion of “Crimson Peak” or the bleak blending of WWII-era Spain and dark fantasy in “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “The Devil’s Backbone”- then you don’t understand the vision that goes in to every film. Aiding that vision this time around is a beautiful and lyrical score by Alexandre Desplat (I remember not being a big fan of him when I first starting hearing his name- now, I cannot get enough of him) that is haunting and dream-like in the way it tells the story of Elisa and her Amphibian Man. From top to bottom, there is a singular beauty to Guillermo Del Toro’s film that means that, more than just watching it, you feel it, as well.

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