Synopsis: In a 1960s research facility, a mute janitor forms a relationship with an aquatic creature.
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Running Length: 125 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: First impressions are everything and the underwater opening shot of The Shape of Water got in good with me. Over the credits, director Guillermo del Toro navigates us through hallways submerged in water as if hazily coming out of a dream before revealing that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s a beautifully artsy way to introduce his adult fairy tale and it sets a tone that’s well-maintained throughout. This is an artisan that knows his way around strong visuals but sometimes struggles with a narrative to match those impressive sights. Over-indulging with Pacific Rim but bouncing back nicely with the criminally underrated Crimson Peak, del Toro reaches new heights (or depths?) with The Shape of Water.
Living above a movie theater and working nights as a janitor at a government laboratory in 1960s Baltimore, Elisa (Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine) has been mute since an injury as an infant left her unable to speak. It’s a quiet life ruled by routine, whether it be her standard breakfast or her “personal” time she makes sure to take every day. Her job is mundane but she has a friendly co-worker in Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station) and Giles, a kindly closeted neighbor to keep her company.
The lives of all three are altered significantly by the arrival of a secret experiment into the research facility. A living, breathing sea-monster has been captured in South America and has been brought to the test center to be studied, observed, dissected. Under the watchful eye of the evil Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, Midnight Special) and the scholarly interest of Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, Trumbo), the creature is kept chained in a tank and routinely tortured by his captor.
While cleaning the laboratory one night, Elisa connects with the creature and sees kindness in him where others see fear. Over the next days they find a common language that leads to deeper understanding and maybe…love. Set during the height of the Cold War with the threat of Russian spies everywhere, Strickland takes no chances in protecting his find at all costs, so when Elisa hatches an escape plan for the creature and brings Zelda and Giles (Richard Jenkins, White House Down) along as her co-conspirators, they face an obsessive hunter out for blood.
As is typical of a del Toro picture, the period details are precise down to the backsplash tiles in Elisa’s apartment. An ardent fan of monster movies from Universal Studios, del Toro has intelligently put together this picture as a loving homage to his youth while relaying a very present message of acceptance at the same time. The script, co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs), is filled with main characters that would be considered outsiders, or “other”, yet their position in the plot isn’t there to exploit what makes them different. There’s even a sweet scene where fantasy and reality collide when Elisa imagines herself in a big budget Hollywood musical, featuring the creature as her dance partner. It’s these bits of whimsy that parallel nicely with the darker turns the film takes in its final half hour.
Hawkins has next to no dialogue but conveys so much in her expressive face. It’s difficult stuff to invite an audience so far inward but Hawkins has the goods to captivate us throughout. While Spencer has played (and will continue to play) this type of whip-smart tough cookie roles before, there’s an added layer of angst in her personal life that ups the ante for her. Jenkins continues to be a value add to any project he’s involved with, his gay illustrator longs for any kind of connection and his personal and professional rejections are heartbreaking to watch. If all goes to plan, Stuhlbarg will be in three movies nominated for Best Picture this year (Call Me by Your Name and The Post being the others) and as a man harboring dangerous secrets he’s resplendent as always. No one plays a nasty villain quite like Michael Shannon and while I’d long for a chance to see him play a Giles-like role someday, he’s a nice nemesis for Hawkins and company.
There’s going to be those that find the romantic relationship that develops between Elisa and the creature (marvelously played by Doug Jones, Hocus Pocus) to be troubling. On the way out of the screening I heard one audience member remark they weren’t aware the movie was about bestiality and honestly, to reduce the movie to that is missing the mark entirely, especially when you take into account the open-for-further discussion ending. I found the relationships between all of the characters incredibly moving and authentic, especially the dandy scene with Elisa pleading with Giles to help her save the creature. If they know what’s happening is wrong and do nothing to help him, what makes them any better that Strickland and others who want to destroy something that is different? It’s a lesson our country needs to hear right now and del Toro knows it.