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The Shape of Water Review

December 22, 2017 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
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The Shape of Water Review  

Directed By: Guillermo del Toro
Written By: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Runtime: 123 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language

Sally Hawkins – Elisa Esposito
Richard Jenkins – Giles
Doug Jones – Amphibian Man
Michael Shannon – Richard Strickland
Octavia Spencer – Zelda Fuller
Michael Stuhlbarg – Dr. Robert Hoffstetler
Nick Searcy – General Hoyt

Director Guillermo del Toro has quite possibly achieved his greatest film to date with his new heartwarming love story with a twist, The Shape of Water. In this romantic fantasy tale, Del Toro has crafted a story that is elegant, lovely, melancholy, yet also wonderfully bittersweet.

The Shape of Water is basically Del Toro putting his own spin on Universal horror creature features of old, specifically Creature From the Black Lagoon. However, in this case, Del Toro subverts the aforementioned film’s narrative because the so-called “monster” is not the inhuman creature, but the type of characters who would previously be seen as the “good guys” from those popular films of the 1950s.

The narrative unfolds from the perspective of the mute cleaning lady, Elisa (Hawkins), who performs janitorial work at a secret government facility on the East Coast. She lives a fairly solitary and routine life. Her only friends are her troubled artist next-door neighbor Giles (Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Spencer). The facility where Elisa and Zelda work soon becomes host to a high-level government “asset” in the form of the Amphibian Man (Jones). The creature was forcibly retrieved from a South American jungle by Colonel Richard Strickland (Shannon), where it was worshipped as a god by the locals.

Strickland is a cold, cruel man, and he seems to take sadistic pleasure in abusing and torturing the captured creature. Elisa is drawn to the creature, believing him to be a beautiful being and something more. Over time, she starts feeding the creature, teaching it her sign language and the love of music. Even the facility’s lead scientist, Dr. Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) becomes aware of their activities together, realizing the creature is more than just some primitive, savage fish humanoid. With the United States embroiled in the Cold War with Russia, Strickland and his superior, General Hoyt (Searcy), seek to dissect the creature in order to discover its secrets. The general idea is that the creature could hold secrets to help prepare United States astronauts for space travel. Having grown fond of the creature, Elisa seeks to rescue him from the facility and free him from captivity, recruiting Giles’ help. However, the United States is not the only party interested in the creature’s secrets, and time is running out.

This is a fantastic, profoundly touching fantasy drama. It’s a culmination of Del Toro’s previous works, such as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth; and in many ways, it plays as a spiritual successor to these films. And while those films are unquestionably exceptional, The Shape of Water is even better. It’s infinitely emotional, compassionate and graceful. Del Toro imbues his direction with an ethereal fairy tale quality, despite the setting of early 1960s Cold War America and a plot that involves a creature that comes right out of the Universal Monster library.

Del Toro and Taylor really excel in delivering supporting characters who are far more than cookie-cutter, two-dimensional walking cliches. The central cast all bring their characters to life in wonderful fashion. Each supporting character has a compelling subplot of their own. Generous time is spent to develop the personal conflicts for characters such as the lonely Giles, who is harboring his own personal secret. Dr. Hoffstetler also emerges in one of the film’s more interesting subplots, which explores how the inhumane outlook toward the creature is shared by the US government. Octavia Spencer puts in a great performance as Elisa’s work friend, Zelda, who excels in bringing her role far above the “supportive best friend” this type of character typically serves in such stories. While some of the character archetypes are somewhat familiar, Del Toro and Taylor’s script, coupled with amazing performances by the cast, really elevate this subversion of 1950s creature features.

Even Shannon’s Strickland, a cruel and abusive man, is cast to some degree in an empathetic light. It’s not that the audience is rooting for Strickland to succeed, but Del Toro and Taylor incorporate elements to emphasize that Strickland and some of his actions are a product of his environment, his superiors and the expectations put on him. Not to mention, Strickland, with his haunting features and presence, can play villainous “monsters” like Strickland in his sleep. Of course, the characterization of Strickland as the true “monster” of the story is intentional, which is par for the course in Del Toro’s work. It’s often the creatures who are innocent and treated cruelly by humans, who fight or kill in order to defend themselves due to the poor treatment caused by the darker sides of human nature.

At the heart of The Shape of Water is the love story between Elisa and the Amphibian Man. Hawkins is outstanding in this role, playing a mute character who has no actual dialogue other than her sign language. She completely owns and dives into a character who generally has no dialogue of her own. It’s also refreshing, as these type of films will rarely showcase a mute lead character speaking only in sign language. Jones as the creature is equally outstanding, creating a character and the object of Elisa’s affection who is fully realized, even while buried under a full costume of rubber and latex. Jones has previously played a fish man in Del Toro’s films with Hellboy and its sequel, but this is a wholly different character who looks like he could be Abe Sapien’s cousin. It’s fun to think about a potential connection between those two characters, but more than likely, that’s not intentional.

Del Toro doesn’t shy away from showcasing human ugliness and cruelty. But through ugliness and the lesser parts of human nature, he still showcases compassion, beauty, empathy and love. The Shape of Water is not one to miss.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
The Shape of Water is one of director Guillermo del Toro's best works. He's created a lovely, romantic fantasy drama that's equal parts beautiful, ethereal and elegant. It's a powerful film that takes familiar elements from sci-fi and horror films and subverts them in profound ways. It's hard to imagine a straight reboot of Creature From the Black Lagoon after watching this, which is essentially an unofficial one that pushes the idea that the creature is largely innocent, intelligent and compassionate, while the humans are the true monsters bringing harm to one of nature's unexplained wonders for superficial reasons. It's an amazing film with a beautiful touch and signature style by Del Toro.