2017 | rated R | starring Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones | directed by Guillermo Del Toro | 2hrs 3mins |
Studio Pitch: A love story centered around The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
In 2006 Guillermo Del Toro set a new standard for the Adult Fairy Tale with the masterful Pan’s Labyrinth. A standard many misinterpreted and few were able to meet. While Pan is a hard film to equal, his latest, The Shape of Water is a worthy successor. Hitting all the right beats and following in that mold, but creating it’s own world and stretching into some truly ambitious and bizarre territory.
The film is even more whimsical and fanciful and almost as brutal. Del Toro lets real world cruelty creep in though the seams of his fantasy world and threaten to rip it apart. He sets his tale in the early 60s, where race and sex tensions lurk just beyond the frame, but it takes place in a more stylized cinematic version of the 60s that may have only ever existed in movies. It’s scored like a French romance and a little bit cartoonish, a movie about movies that can only be a movie. A movie with a fantasy gloss that makes it’s impossible love story seem plausible. That in itself is a real achievement.
Shape follows Elise Espinosa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor who works in a government lab with her chatty friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer, terrific) and lives above a theater with her Fred and Ginger loving neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). One day FBI agent Strickland (resident villain Michael Shannon) brings in a captured creature from the amazon jungle, an Amphibious Man (dubbed in the credits, he looks like Hellboy’s Abe Sapien and the movie could just as well be a prequel), and Elise bonds with him. When the government decides to vivisect the creature before the Russians get a hold of him, Elise pools her resources and plots an escape plan to save the creature from an increasingly erratic Strickland putting everyone in danger and sparking a girl-meets-fish love story.
After being pummeled by the bloated sound and fury of Justice League and Star Wars: The Last Jedi and in almost equal measure, the stripped-down, indie character pieces bidding for end-of-year Oscar buzz like Lady Bird and The Disaster Artist, The Shape of Water came so delicious and satisfying. This is my kind of movie, a film that marries the best of both cinematic worlds, that cares for characters but also relishes film’s visual opportunity to create fantasy. It’s a period piece of cold war paranoia, a monster movie homage, a love note to classic romances and a love story between two lost souls. Del Toro punctuates that with moments of real menace and crowd-pleasing action and fills out the world with a rich cast of characters that make the more outrageous set pieces work. Even something as small as a running gag where a co workers screams at Zelda for holding Elise’s place in line gives the movie life and color. Del Toro has a unique and daring story here and he tells so cleanly that he makes it look effortless. It’s a focused rebound from the discombobulated Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim (though, for the record, even Del Toro at half speed is worth seeing).
Michael Shannon once again plays the tightly wound, religiously-inspired, G-man who will chase the creature to the ends of the Earth out of sheer sadism. It’s here where we find Del Toro’s biggest falter. Shannon is always good at this guy and his lines are solid, but Del Toro almost can’t help himself but make the villain an over-the-top monster. Given how the rest of the characters have surprises and layers, it is disappointing to find nothing behind Strickland’s desperate rampage. Del Toro keeps it broad, identifying Strickland’s moods as either a bad guy or a very bad guy with each racist, sexist, ugly remark and deed designed to get the audience hissing.
The skeleton of the story here has been done. It’s the details that make it so entertaining and it’s how far Del Toro takes the film into some truly strange and surprising territory that makes it so special. The Shape of Water is fundamentally another Beauty and the Beast tale, a trope of women falling in love with creatures and animals that dates back to the days of arranged marriages where orators sold women the virtue of taming the beastly man. It’s a trope that flashed up with a vengeance with the Twilight saga and movies in it’s wake about women meeting perfect alternatives to human males. All that is to say, this is first movie since Twilight brought back this perplexing trope that delivered a girl/beast love story that I didn’t roll my eyes at.
Hawkins sells the hell out of this and Del Toro wraps it all in a fairy tale gloss. Theirs is a story of misfits. Elise doesn’t feel whole and sees a kindred spirit in the creature. Several of these characters here misfits in this period piece and we get great work here from Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg, supporting characters with arcs just as strong as the Hawkins’. In any other movie a woman physically falling for a sea creature would come off campy or laughable, but at no point does Del Toro wink to the camera or give an inch of daylight over to potential camp, playing it straight down the middle. He completely immerses us in the fantasy, one coated in love of old Hollywood movies and French love stories, using those tropes to flip on their ear. Its French whimsy plays like something Jean Pierre-Jeunet would have made. Nobody makes this type of genre mash-up better than Del Toro and The Shape of Water is both beautiful and thrilling.