REVIEW: The Shape of Water (2017)

US Theatrical Release Poster – Fox Searchlight Pictures

The following is a review of The Shape of Water — Directed by Guillermo Del Toro.

There was a story that Mexican film auteur Guillermo Del Toro kept on mentioning as he was doing the rounds talking about his newest film – a true passion project – this last year that really stuck with me. Del Toro – perhaps the greatest champion of the creature feature subgenre these days – saw 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon when he was only six-years-old, and he was so taken by the image of the Gill-man swimming underneath actress Julia Adams that he found himself hoping that they would end up together. A strange idea, perhaps, but not to him.

Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water takes place in America during the Cold War, when the Russian and American governments were both trying their all to get a leg up, so to speak, on each other. In attempting to get that leg up, every piece of information is of paramount importance, which fuels tension between colleagues and strips all of patience.

The American government has found an amphibian man in South America, and while Russian spies are trying to uncover the American discovery, the American government is poking and prodding the strange creature to figure out what makes it tick.

While that all does happen in the movie that plot description isn’t completely representative of the kind of entertainment that the director has made out of this Creature from the Black Lagoon meets the Cold War-story premise. It is perhaps a little bit too dry for someone with the fascinations that Guillermo Del Toro has. Where are the Mexican auteur’s recurring motifs? Where’s the twist? Well, let me tell you, The Shape of Water is actually a love story — a quite unlikely and completely extraordinary love story between a mute woman and the aforementioned creature.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute female janitor at the secret government facility that houses the amphibian man, who becomes fascinated by – and eventually falls in love with – the amphibian man. When she overhears that the creature is to be vivisected, she teams up with a rogue Russian spy, her next-door neighbor, Giles (played by Richard Jenkins), and her co-worker, Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer), to free the amphibian man and release him.

In my review of El Laberinto del Fauno, I discussed how many of Del Toro’s stories revolve around this rebellion against wicked institutions — or people of power — in narratives that are about the unknown, the disenfranchised, and those that are unconventional – oh yeah, and there are fantasy elements or monsters in his films too. One might call that the Del Toro-formula, which the plot of The Shape of Water is also modeled upon.

As this film is set during the Cold War — like how both El Laberinto del Fauno and El Espinazo del Diablo were set around the time of the Spanish Civil War — this film has competing institutions fighting for some sort of control. Here we have the American government and the Russian spies trying to infiltrate the government facility. While there is a representative of one of those two institutions in a heroic role, this film in no way makes the argument that one government is less corrupt than the other. This is a film about disenfranchised and overlooked individuals saving a creature from corrupt governments.

Of course, Del Toro goes about telling that story in a roundabout way — a way that, undoubtedly, will be off-putting to some. Because this is a great love story — in every sense of the word — and I think some people will be disturbed (or worse) by the image of seeing a grown woman actively fall in love with this creature. Furthermore, I think some people will be repelled by the notion that the central characters do more than just hug and look at each other longingly. But I didn’t have an issue with this.

What I did have an issue with was that I found the ending to be slightly predictable, and I also am of the opinion that the second half of the film loses that same sense of narrative drive that had made it such an enthralling film to watch when it predominantly took place at the government facility. The second half of the film is still a dazzling love story, which I enjoyed a lot, but I would argue that it has these pacing issues in the latter half of the film.

This film is also very well acted. Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Shannon both give solid performances, I thought Richard Jenkins was terrific, but people have obviously been talking about Sally Hawkins’ performance a lot. Hawkins is great in this film, and I think she had to be for this film to work. This film would’ve fallen apart if it didn’t have a strong performance from the female lead. Doug Jones, who ‘plays’ the amphibian man, does all he can do to make this work, but this is Hawkins’ film.

All in all, The Shape of Water is, mostly, a spellbinding alternative love story — powered by a wonderful musical score by Alexandre Desplat — as inspired by earlier creature features that has that same magical charm that Guillermo Del Toro exudes when he gets to speak about what he loves. It certainly is not Del Toro’s best film, but it is another exciting and enchanting story by one of the most underrated auteurs out there.

9 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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