Guillermo del Toro, with his latest The Shape of Water, weaves, in effect, a fairy tale monster movie. Imbued with the shadowy lighting and terse patriotism of the Cold War 1950s, in which nationalistic patsies are led by men in trench coats who speak in passwords, the film sets itself in an industrial government building that hides away U.S. military secrets.
Working in this industrial warehouse, underneath the shadowy government officials and their shills and patsies, is the mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins). With the camaraderie of Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who fills the space where Elisa’s words cannot reach, they clean the facility. This includes cleaning up the blood after a new arrival to the facility causes an incident with resident security guard Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).
This new arrival (Doug Jones) is an amphibious creature. An amphibious creature that Elisa takes a liking to.
Del Toro is experiencing a masterstroke with The Shape of Water. It is not a perfect movie, no, but by the end of the film even the flaws appear to be functional elements of the film.
This is to say: 1) the flaw that Michael Shannon’s villain is a one-note maniac is thwarted by the actor’s sheer menace and how this menace drives the pacing of the film (the one-note Russian villains are less interesting characters, however) and 2) the flaw of the quirky use of sexual humor is thwarted by the obvious and inextricable connection between love and sex, where the use of humor lends itself to more intimate moments later in the film.
Those were the only flaws bouncing around my head while watching The Shape of Water. Otherwise, the film does a shockingly good job of grounding its fantasy by encapsulating the time period in which it is set. It appeals widely with its genre hybridity, in that the film is equal parts romance, science fiction, fairy tale, creature feature, and Cold War thriller. And it is presented with a heightened sense of style that is sensual and dynamic.
Del Toro takes a story that is simple and well-known—two lovers from different walks of life come together through a shared understanding and language that others do not approve of—and draws it with a new brush. While doing this he adds cinematic moments of romance that feel fresh and vibrant, as well as bits of dialogue that are lyrical in a way that complements the fairy tale take that the film is going for.
The ensemble cast does great work bringing this story to life. Hawkins, clearly, is the stand out. The amount of personality and emotion that she can convey without spoken language is absolutely spell-binding. The same could be said for Jones, who also functions as a full character despite not having a human form. Spencer, Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Richard Jenkins also bring to the table great performances, but it is this pair of Hawkins and Jones that make The Shape of Water magical.
And that is exactly what it is: magical. The movie is filled with little moments that are worth dwelling on, charming scenes or parts of scenes that may not even serve the larger story, but they are lovely all the same. This may be two character recreating a tap dance number while sitting next to each other on a couch, or the tinkling romance theme in the score that pops up whenever Elisa finds herself caught up in the majesty of her amphibian companion.
When a film can succeed at such a minute level as this, where from moment to moment there is something gorgeous to glean, that is when you know a film is doing something special. I know I already wrote my best of the year list, but The Shape of Water is among those top movies.
The Shape of Water: A
As always, thanks for reading!
Like CineFiles on Facebook for updates on new articles and reviews.
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)