Summary: A 1960’s research facility gets a new occupant.
There is no other way to end 2017 than with one of the best movies of the year, The Shape of Water. I admit, there are plenty of movies I haven’t seen that are getting similar accolades, but if they’re not directed by Guillermo del Toro, I tend to care less. I was looking forward to this film more than any other this year and the wait was worth it.
The Shape of Water tells a tale of a 1960’s research facility, whose quiet workers vary in background, experience, and beliefs. This is all turned upside down with a new acquisition, an amphibian (played by Doug Jones), as well as its new babysitter and head of security (Michael Shannon- kneel before Zod!). At the center of all this is Elisa (a lovely Sally Hawkins), a mute woman with a big heart and big dreams, her neighbor Giles who happens to be gay (Richard Jenkins), her best work pal Zelda who happens to be black (Octavia Spencer), and mysterious research doctor (Michael Stuhlbarg).
It’s an oddly delightful and surreal little film that feels much, much bigger than it is. Possibly del Toro’s least fantastical environment in terms of what we normally associate with the fantasy genre, it’s also one of his deepest. I’m always impressed by the not only the visual environment he sets in his work, but the tone and aura of it as well. The Shape of Water leaks (yes, that’s a pun) with empathy and humanity, the desire to be seen and to be one’s self. This has much to do with the dialogue, and in some cases lack thereof, which is well-written, intentional, and meaningful. In a genre where the conversations tend to be exposition, del Toro fills his with richness in emotion and longing, letting his actors fill in the gaps where needed.
While we are talking about dialogue, the use of sound is also worthy of mention here, starting with the soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat. I’ve been a fan of his since his breakout for The King’s Speech. It’s perfectly whimsical (think Up) and suited to Eliza’s emotions. I’d also like to shout out the creative sounds mashed together for the creature- it’s part Jurassic Park-raptor and part LOTR-fell-beast and just a really cool noise whenever Jones opens up his mouth.
There is a wide range of performances with a relatively small cast- there are 5 major speaking roles and none ever feel out of place or underused. Each of them has motives, one personal fulfillment and one “bigger picture,” and these lend themselves to providing us with fuller, complex characters. Diversity is one of the most obvious and important elements of the movie but in a different way than what we have become accustomed to as del Toro relies on his visuals to tell the story instead of laments and soliloquies. And there are so many layers to each of them. There’s no discovery of self in this movie, but rather stories of strength and feats. There are some nice reflective moments where the characters realize or acknowledge their worth is more than what they’ve been told because of their traits or combination of these. Crowning this is an excellent moment where Giles bemoans his identity in the closet but realizes his privilege as a white man.
With certain actors, there’s always a sense that they are playing a part or reciting a line- Hawkins does none of this, fully embodying Eliza. Eliza is an obviously more challenging in the simple fact she can’t speak (an actor’s tool), but Hawkins displays much more than sign language and reactions. With each “line,” we get a whole internalized process- we can see the wheels turning in her head of “How do I get my point across?” as words are always misconstrued from person to person. We see the frustration of speaking a foreign language and its communication errors. Highly reminiscent of Audrey Tautou in Amelie, Hawkins not only breathes life into Eliza but gives her so much spirit and fills her with hope. With the equally quiet Jones, Eliza and uh… Fish (not trying to be comical, really, what do we call him?) give intention and meaning to even the slightest movements. Language and communication are ready to be explored here and del Toro does so in several different ways (more on this later). Shannon as our antagonist is also a highlight of the cast, as an able-bodied, straight white male with a white picket fenced family complete with one son and one daughter. The character of Strickland is best described as overzealous and self-important and Shannon just relishes in these scenes. He’s also provided enough moments so the audience can see what factors (cough-masculinity and gender binaries) might have happened to solidify his mentality. Again, del Toro doesn’t write this exact dialogue but gives the character some great lines that give backstory and lets Shannon polish it with contempt and attitude.
This may be del Toro’s least traditional fantasy work, but by no means is it any less beautiful or less complex. Lots of rich colors emphasize the characters of Eliza and Giles and there’s a dreamy, glamorous vibrancy to it all. Detail is given to every single book littering Giles’ shelves. Time is also used wisely here, moving things quickly along plot-wise and lingering on the more heartfelt moments. As expected with a del Toro piece, there are moments of extreme violence (he continues his fascination with mouth wounds) which serve to contrast the serene, otherworldliness of Eliza’s experiences. Nothing is gratuitous or overindulgent and just reserved enough to be subtle yet noticeable. I love del Toro never uses fantasy as a crutch, but rather as an embellishment of what already is a heartbreaking and magical story.
More than anything, The Shape of Water is noticeably made with the exact message it conveys- empathy, love, kindness, and earnestness will triumph over all else. You can feel the attention to detail and fondness del Toro has for his content. While this doesn’t dethrone Pan’s Labyrinth as my all-time del Toro favorite, it can’t be denied that he’s one of the few filmmakers we can depend on for consistency in vision, ambition, and execution. We are so lucky to be an audience for this magnificent type of work.