Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Reviewed by Brandon Bishop
“Life is but the shipwreck of our plans.”
Guillermo del Toro is known for his unique voice in cinema. The visionary director of Pacific Rim, Hellboy, and Pan’s Labyrinth, he blends dark, strange, even violent and disturbing imagery and subject matter into complex stories with heartfelt themes and important messages. The Shape of Water follows this trend. Set in the early 1960’s, The Shape of Water depicts the story of Elisa Esposito played by Sally Hawkins of Blue Jasmine, a mute custodian at a scientific facility housing a new specimen, portrayed by frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones, who is as usual under quite a bit of make up and special effects.
Del Toro has always been a “show, don’t tell” director. That benefits The Shape of Water in no small measure, considering that the two most important characters, Elisa and the creature, known by most characters in the movie as “The Asset,” are silent. Sally Hawkins steals the show here. To rob an actor of such a crucial part of his or her ability to express could cripple some performers. Mute since birth, Elisa struggles to communicate with many people, and Hawkins sells it with brilliantly expressive facial and body language. She leads a simple life, working nights at the facility, chatting girl talk with her coworker, played by an extremely charming Octavia Spencer, and sharing pie with her lonely neighbor, a struggling artist played by Richard Jenkins. But underneath, she has so much to say and longs to be understood.
Doug Jones, a master of pantomime performance, having portrayed countless characters buried under heavy make up and prosthetics, brings us a creature that is not completely animal, but far from inhuman. Like Elisa, The Asset struggles to express itself. He suffers needless torment from the scientists of the facility and his groans and howls cut to the bone and will make you squirm. Mankind fears and punishes what it does not understand. Elisa and The Asset, however, struggling to be heard in a world that chooses to ignore the pain and confusion they experience every day, find that they understand each other like no one else does.
Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg round out a strong cast as the leader of the research team and a sympathetic scientist, respectively. Shannon echoes his work from Boardwalk Empire and Man of Steel as an intimidating authoritarian. He’s almost cast to type, save for some idiosyncrasies and his faith. Still, he emanates a threatening presence, adding palpable tension to his scenes, even with his family. Stuhlbarg impresses as always, although Shape doesn’t give him a lot of chances to really shine.
The Shape of Water could be described as a fairy tale in the vein of Beauty and the Beast with a little Creature of the Black Lagoon, all directed with the vision of Guillermo del Toro. The film has a visual style that can’t be overemphasized. Del Toro’s imagery features high contrast, murky lighting over colorful, over-saturated sets. Combined with fascinating subject matter that is interesting, emotional, a little disturbing, and surprisingly adult. It’s a simple story at face value, but it takes its time and gives us enough to not be shocked when the stranger moments come. It may be off-putting to some who aren’t prepared, but it’s a beautiful story that is brilliantly executed and thematically layered. Easily del Toro’s best work since Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water delivers a complex, adult fairy tale that delicately treads some surprising subject matter and charms all the way through.