By: Trevor Chartrand
Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a masterfully crafted modern-day fairy tale. An incredible, romanticized take on the creature feature, director/co-writer del Toro seamlessly combines genre and visual style to bring us this beautifully bizarre morality tale.
Set during the cold war, The Shape of Water tells the story of a mute woman, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), as she makes a close connection with the mysterious amphibious creature (Doug Jones) that’s being studied in the laboratory she works in. An allegory for oppression faced by outsiders, Elisa gathers a team of social outcasts and sets out to rescue the creature from potential harm in the facility. It’s a story you’ve seen variations of before – but never like this.
Set in a world where villains truly are villains, this script is lavish with menacing archetypes. Antagonists aren’t always as well-rounded as they could be, but each character serves their purpose in the parable. This is especially the case with characters like Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the violent, oppressive colonel in charge of the lab. With his constant unjustified anger, the character borders on caricature as he yells and screams his way through the film. An effective performance and an easy-to-hate antagonist, Strickland just seems evil for evil’s sake. While it works for the narrative, the cast he shares the screen with are so vivid and rich that he becomes flat in comparison.
In contrast, Sally Hawkins expertly carries The Shape of Water with a nuanced, yet powerful, performance. There is no end to Elisa’s optimism and passion; she carries herself with genuine positivity and a quirky attitude that shines, all without speaking a single word of dialogue. An undoubtedly demanding role, del Toro and Hawkins have created an unforgettably visual character here.
Now speaking of memorable characters, the aquatic creature in the film is the real attraction, and he truly is a sight to behold. Movie monsters have obviously been a staple of del Toro’s career, and The Shape of Water is no exception. Not only has he created an incredible looking ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon,’ of his own, but he’s also made his monster a sympathetic, lonely, and relatable being. The detail and design of the creature is fantastic – effectively blending a practical bodysuit with minor visual effects. There’s depth behind the creature’s eyes, and way more expression in his face than the CGI Leia in Rogue One could ever give us. As the monster, Doug Jones’ chemistry with Hawkins is the definition of visual storytelling, and a testament to both their skills as silent performers.
What’s most disappointing about the creature though – and I would argue this is one of the most important moments in any monster movie – is the actual reveal of the amphibious man. The first time he appears on screen should be epic, especially since the film builds incremental suspense early on, slowly introducing him in bits and pieces. First he’s a mere ripple underwater, then later a webbed hand pressed against glass. This slow burn sets the precedent that the final reveal will be a real show-stopping number. Instead the creature just… sort of… casually stands up. It’s a little anti-climactic, as if he’s nonchalantly stepping out of a bath.
Outside of the romantic leads, the film relies heavily on Elisa’s two best friends, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins), who have the acting challenge of playing off Hawkins’ silence as well as doing all the talking for her. To their credit, this cast makes this difficult task appear effortless.
As an effective period piece, The Shape of Water is wonderfully shot, with elaborate and thorough set design that’s layered to feel lived-in and real. The film also features stunning underwater sequences in which Elisa and the creature have a sort of rhythmic grace, as if they are engaged in an undersea dance. Aesthetically, the film is relentlessly pleasing to the eye.
Despite adult themes, a dark tone and violence throughout, The Shape of Water still manages to remain warm and accessible, most likely due to Hawkins and her infectious cheerfulness. A poetic morality tale that challenges genre convention and monster movie expectations, this is a must-see film for the holiday season.
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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor