Mark Reviews Movies

The Shape of Water


3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy

MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language)

Running Time: 2:03

Release Date: 12/1/17 (limited); 12/8/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 7, 2017

It begins as a very clever gag, involving a top-secret government laboratory and a woman who cleans up the place. We've seen such places in the movies before, and this film answers that nagging question: After some experiment goes terribly awry, who has to clean up the mess? In co-writer/director Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, it's Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a lonely, mute woman who has seen some things that we could only imagine. Near the start of the story, she's mopping the floor around a giant jet engine that might be put on some classified plane in an effort to win the Cold War, and later, she's called in to make another laboratory spick-and-span.

One of the experiments became a little—let's say—agitated, and now there's blood all over the place. She finds a couple of fingers, too, and knowing that somebody probably will want them back, she puts the digits in her lunch bag. The owner of the fingers complains that there was mustard on them, but that probably says more about him than Elisa.

This is a very funny premise, but from it, del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor expand the film's ideas and setups, until it seems ready to burst. The film becomes a biting critique of American culture in 1960s, a heist picture, a tale of Cold War-era espionage, a monster movie, a fairy tale, and, perhaps above all else, a tender love story between two unlikely lovers. That last part is only "perhaps" above the rest of the film's narrative and thematic modes because it's primarily about loneliness, isolation, and the ways in which sad and lonely people are drawn together, as if by some cosmic force that even the scientists working in that lab could never fathom.

This is to say that it's a big, bold film, uncaring if people might think it's silly or a bit too melodramatic. Del Toro never has been one to consider such possible allegations against his work, and here, he's basically doubling down on the silliness and the melodrama. The important thing is that he fully embraces those concepts in the process. He's fearless in mashing these elements together, playing the resulting material with the heightened tone that it deserves and needs, and hoping that the film's stylistic excesses will hold the whole thing together.

Elisa works during the lab's graveyard shift with Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American woman who's overlooked at work (where there's still some notable racism from some folks) and at home (where her husband expects her to do everything without complaint), and she returns home to an apartment above a movie theater. Her next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is an artist who works in advertising at a time when photography is becoming the norm and a gay man at a time when it is far from a norm.

The story's most prominent outsider, though, arrives at the facility with Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a government man who has returned from the South American jungle with the lab's most noteworthy acquisition in its storied history. It's a creature that is part man and part fish—seen as a god by the locals of its former home. The film's credits refer to it as Amphibian Man (played by del Toro regular Doug Jones), which is about right, considering that it possesses an anatomy that allows it to breathe in water and, for short periods of time, on land.

Think the Creature from the Black Lagoon, only possessing scales that look more akin to skin and are colored a mossy green with streaks of royal blue. Save for its face—with its flattened nose and fishy eyes—and its spikes along its back and its finned hands, Amphibian Man looks human enough—a fact that sticks a bit in Strickland's craw, considering his belief that humanity holds a unique place in God's creation. Strickland has some other unfortunate beliefs, too—seeing Zelda as inferior to him within that same divine scheme, holding a violent attitude toward anything remotely different from him, thinking that women are better seen than heard (He has rough sex with his wife and covers her mouth against her protests). That last one makes the silent Elisa appealing to him in untoward ways.

Elisa, though, has eyes for Amphibian Man, because, when it looks at her, it does so without prejudice or pity. The creature's unique physiology makes it a prime specimen for research regarding the Space Race between the American and Soviet governments, and with Strickland advocating to dissect Amphibian Man before the Soviets can get their hands on it, Elisa plans to free the creature from its captivity.

The film's setting is a masterful concoction of realism and fantasy, with its period-authentic costumes and sets blending into the industrial arena of the lab. Del Toro and his production team have created a heightened perception of reality and a down-to-earth view of its science-fiction elements (Focusing on the day-to-day, behind-the-scenes work within the lab is a minor coup in making the fantastical seem relatively ordinary), and it provides a seamless backdrop against which the story's seemingly disparate elements come across with a decided sense of normalcy.

Grounding it further are the performances, especially from Hawkins, who plays the protagonist with a growing sense of rebellion against the rigors and stagnation of what's considered normal and right in this society, and Jenkins, who imbues Giles with an aching sort of vulnerability without making the character pathetic. Spencer is, as usual, a joy as Elisa's friend, who comes to realize what she signed up for in that friendship, and Michael Stuhlbarg plays a double-agent scientist who's horrified by what both sides in the Cold War conflict plan to do with this unique being. According to the film's opening narration, Shannon is playing the story's "monster," and it's a testament to the actor's depth that he's more that one-note description.

Does the film falter at points? Yes, it does (There's a black-and-white musical number, for example, that feels redundant), but it only does so because del Toro plays with this material with wild abandon. He's working with complete control, though, and as a result, The Shape of Water works as a lovely, exciting, frightening, and funny tale of love and loneliness.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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