Love doesn’t have to be traditional. Working as a nighttime janitor in 1960’s Baltimore is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), who is mute. Her responsibility, along with best friend coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is to clean the urine, feces, and all other matter that is left behind in the Occam Aerospace Research Center. When she’s not working, she’s often making conversation and viewing musicals with her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins). Minus the cleaning part, it’s not a bad life, yet far from a memorable one.
That changes once Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings an Asset (Doug Jones) to the compound in the form of a mysterious amphibian monster that can supposedly help the United States get an advantage in the Cold War. After testing, no secrets are made about the asset being killed. He’s already abused and berated consistently. In between these abuse periods, Elisa begins to build a strong bond with the monster, and realizes that she must do whatever it takes to get him out of this facility.
Death, taxes, and Guillermo del Toro melding polar opposite genres together into something unique. There’s dark fantasy, and then there’s del Toros’ dark fantasy, as seen in Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak, and now, The Shape of Water, which takes del Toro’s love for the otherworldly and combining a love story to the likes we’ve probably never seen before. At the very. very least, it’s certainly unique and memorable.
In a cinema world often derided for the lack of auteurs as it pertains to directors, Guillermo is one of the few who makes his vision and creates art. Two well-worn inspirations in Beauty and the Beast and Creature from the Black Lagoon are evident, but even video games like Fallout and Bioshock and literature such as Stranger in a Strange Land appear to help build the 1960’s world showcased here.
Aesthetically, this Baltimore is a surreal-looking locale, coated perpetually in green and teal tint sharing similarities with many monster movies. But, the color symbolizes more in life, sickness, hope, inexperience, and—most importantly—love, all themes that The Shape of Water delves into. A high point tension-wise is a surprisingly tense and unpredictable heist scene. Something’s wrong with the major cinematography awards if Dan Laussen doesn’t get recognition for the cinematography that is present, and a score composed by Alexandre Desplat accentuates the fantastical production.
The Shape of Water is a spectacular production with a solid story and generally great execution, but it isn’t without pitfalls. The actual union feels a little rushed, and it is testament to the lead talent at hand that they sell the believability of it by film’s end. While the Cold War setting seems to initially hint at more integration into the plot, the tale could have easily been told in any other era with little impact. Lastly, it is fair to wonder if some additional subtlety by del Toro would have gone a long way towards garnering more intense emotion. There’s one scene that ends with the door closing, telling us all we need to know, and it’s well done. Other scenes come off as a little too self-indulgent, even cringey and/or corny, to the point that they drew me, personally, out of this world.
But, as much credit as the director and his technical team are deserving of, it is the cast and specifically the lead performers that sell what’s going on. Working backwards, supporting veteran castmates in Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, and Michael Stuhlbarg add a level of sophistication and gravitas despite their characters, save somewhat for Jenkins, being light on meat. Out of the supporting characters, Michael Shannon chews scenery from the moment he’s introduce as the simply pure evil and tunnel-vision focused Colonel. But of course, it’s Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins who come away as the talking points of The Shape of Water. Both hardly say any words but their non-verbals and chemistry is in full force, and the performance of Hawkins runs the gamut from loneliness to levity to pure bliss.
Save for a few odd-fitting moments, The Shape of Water takes its many genres and melds them into a fully formed fantasy and distinct view worth going into the deep for.
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