James Rosario is a writer, filmmaker, and musician based in the Asheville, NC area. His record label, Bigger Boat Records, releases...
The Shape of Water (2017)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Reviewed by James Rosario on January 30, 2018
Author's note: I recently published my 'Best of 2017' list. I hadn't yet seen The Shape of Water when I submitted it. If I had, it would certainly have been on the list.
It took me a little while but I was finally able to sneak out to see Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. And boy am I glad I did. I’m a pretty big del Toro mark, so it was no surprise to me that I loved his latest offering. I don’t love all his movies, mind you, but I do love his aesthetic, his vibe, and his approach to filmmaking. He’s a weirdo and he likes making weird movies. I happen to like weird movies, so here we are. The Shape of Water covers some familiar del Toro ground (visual effects, atmosphere, and what not), but it has something that his other films don’t: pure, unadulterated, old-Hollywood romance. It’s the best love story of the year in fact, and that it takes place across species should be of no concern to anyone with any notion of the concept.
While the love story may be at the forefront, the subtext is all about tolerance—specifically, how Americans tend to pay lip service to it, but rarely act on it. Many of the supporting characters seem perfectly polite and accepting up front, but just below the surface lies the deep seeded bigotry and prejudices we all know are there, but don’t talk about. And once the pretenses are off, out comes the hate—and quite unapologetically, I might add.
On the flipside, many others act in direct defiance of these beliefs. The protagonists are all societal outsiders by varying criteria, but they come together to work for the common good. They strive for what is decent and just, and risk their lives doing so. The contrast between Michael Shannon’s Strickland and Sally Hawkins’ Elisa is so night and day it’s palpable. You can feel the polarity between them.
The Christian and mythological references that are common in del Toro’s works help this juxtaposition along. Their presence suggests and reminds us that “decent” Americans are often anything but. Boiled down, the antagonists (society, and those with feigned decency) judge and act strictly on appearance and status quo. The protagonists (those with real decency) do so based on what truly matters—they see what’s inside others, and act accordingly. Furthermore, the protagonists have no wish to assimilate into ‘acceptable’ society, as this society is corrupt, uncaring, evil, and sadistic. The film supposes that these evil levels are the norm, and that it’s up to those willing to fight for change to lift this norm up to higher standards using, empathy, common decency, and will.
This isn’t new. Monster movies have been at this for decades and decades. But what’s interesting, is that with The Shape of Water, one gets the sense that del Toro is pointing some very measured fingers at contemporary American culture. Are they pointing at you? Certainly not…right?
I’ve left out a plot synopsis because I’m sure you’ve seen the trailers and get the general idea—although there's more to the film than is let on in that form. And if you haven’t seen the trailers, I’m sure you will soon because The Shape of Water is nominated for thirteen Oscars. Movies like this don’t generally get Oscar nominations, let alone thirteen. There’s not a lot of Oscar bait at work here—just good old fashioned storytelling, and I’m very happy that the Academy is starting to realize that not all their winners have to come in nice, tidy packages. Sally Hawkins is my pick for ‘Best Actress,’ and I hope Richard Jenkins gets the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ trophy. Hawkins’ performance as Elisa, the mute cleaning lady who falls in love with ‘the asset,’ is a character for the ages. With no words whatsoever, she delivers the most heartfelt, heartwarming, yet when necessary, calculated and rebellious performance we’ve seen in years. This is an actress at the top of her craft in the role that could define her career. Jenkins also delivers as Elisa’s neighbor and confidant, capturing, not only the frustration and fear of being a middle-aged homosexual in the 1960s, but also an inspiring sense of hope, optimism, and unbridled romantic spirit that keeps his character going through less than tolerant times.
The rest of the cast soars as well. Octavia Spencer picked up a ‘Best Supporting Actress’ nomination for her role as Zelda (Elisa’s friend and co-worker). Michael Shannon is at his most evil as Strickland, the security officer and sadist who delivers skewed Bible stories in defense of his actions. Then there’s Doug Jones (a del Toro favorite) as the ‘Amphibian Man.’ What can be said about this? It’s a thankless role, but, dare I say, there has never been more believable and well-acted fish man ever committed to film (that may sound flippant, but I assure you it is not). Rounding it out, Michael Stuhlbarg is great (as usual) as conflicted scientist Dr. Hoffstetler, torn between country, duty, and what’s right. A film could not have been better cast. Everyone embodies their roles in the best of ways.
Along with the superb casting, the 1960s Baltimore setting (the décor, music, costuming, set design etc.) ties all of this together. Part Coen Brothers and part Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Shape of Water is one of this year’s darkest and most visually stunning films. Its green color palette, with continuous water and flowing liquid elements and references are beautiful to look at and a pleasure to be immersed in. It’s no surprise that cinematographer Dan Laustsen is nominated for an Academy Award for his work (although it may finally be Roger Deakins’ year).
Guillermo del Toro has a knack for picking times and settings that best exemplify his themes, and this time around is no different. In this case, post-war America serves as the backdrop for exposing an intolerant society. And that it does so just as well as 1940s Spain did for Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), should really tell you something about del Toro’s opinion on the state of contemporary American society. If it doesn’t, look again.
If you’re not into politics or fantasy masking as cultural critique, fine. See The Shape of Water for the other things I mentioned. The love story is top notch, it’s beautiful to look at, and the acting is incredible. Maybe that other stuff will secretly sneak into your subconscious somehow. At any rate, this is one of the best films of the year.
The Shape of Water is currently playing at area theaters.
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