The Shape of Water: B
This article contains mild plot details.
Guillermo Del Toro has, throughout his career, made films with premises that, if made by anyone else, would become steaming piles of sh*t, the kinds of films you would ironically watch late at night with your drunk friends and laugh at the ridiculous plotting and nonsensical characters (his 2013 film Pacific Rim is basically Transformers v Godzilla, and it is somehow pretty good). His latest film, ‘The Shape of Water,’ is no different in that respect. The current frontrunner for the Oscars (with 13 nominations!) and winner of multiple other awards, can basically be described as a film about a woman who wants to f**k a fish monster.
Of course, one would be doing the film a great disservice to reduce it to that – the film is much more nuanced and complex, rich with characters, each with their own arcs, dreams, and inner lives. One of the more noteworthy aspects of the screenplay is that the film gives each major character their own story outside of the main plot. Each has a chance to make mistakes and then redeem themselves. Del Toro has created a film about outcasts; each character in the story is shunned by society in some way (some less subtly than others). The film is situated within 1950s America, which allows for the theme of fear of the ‘other’ to become explicit while never coming off as preachy; the cold-war tensions place the film behind a layer of detachment, allowing it to subtly address modern-day political issues without letting them overtake the narrative.
The plot concerns Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who is mute and lives by herself in a dingy apartment above a movie theater. She works as a janitor in a government lab, where she comes face to face with their most high security specimen – a vaguely anthropomorphic reptilian creature – played in full body makeup by Doug Jones (how he had time to film this around his senate campaign is anyone’s guess). Their fledgling connection is hindered by the lab’s overseer, Colonel Strickland, played by Michael Shannon in full-on bad-guy mode. Shannon, an actor who is always more effective the more evil his character is, revels in the role, which Del Toro has written to be revolting in every possible way. Strickland is racist, sexist, and even carries around two fingers which, bitten off by the creature early in the film and hastily reattached, grow stiff and blacken throughout the film.
Every performance is nothing less than wonderful; the leads, Jones and Hawkins, use very different types of acting to wordlessly communicate their feelings. One uses grand bodily gestures, while the other uses minute facial manipulations. The supporting cast is comprised of Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s neighbour, who pines for success but is always being let down; Octavia Spencer as Zelda, Elisa’s coworker, struggling to be one of the few Black workers in a White institution; and Michael Stuhlbarg (amazing as always), who plays the kind scientist with a few secrets to hide. Each of these descriptions verges on cliche, and the film never shies away from them; Del Toro has an uncanny ability to pick and choose the best parts of Hollywood’s numerous films involving creatures and shady government organisations. Even when the film starts to resemble E.T. a bit too closely, ‘The Shape of Water’ nevertheless fully presents itself as its own thing.
Much of the film’s success is due to the intense level of care and detail that went into the production design which comes off in every frame of the film. Each shot works to make you believe in both the environment and the characters, so much so that when the script falters, it disrupts what was a very carefully constructed illusion. At times, the dialogue feels stilted, like a simulacrum, a stand-in for emotionally replete speech, as if it were from an earlier draft that Del Toro had intended to rewrite, but never really gotten around to doing. And one particular subplot, involving Russian spies, is so ill-conceived that it feels to have been ripped out of a straight-to-dvd action flick. The mole and their handler meet at the same meeting point every time and yell very loudly in Russian – as if it would be impossible for anyone to have followed them and heard them. The handler often appearing in the mole’s apartment – as if they had no concern for being discovered. For as much work as Del Toro and his team have put into working out the logistics of the creature (and his design is wonderful), I wish that he had spent more time adding authenticity to the spy subplot. But it is only because the rest of the film works so well that this little part of it breaks from the verisimilitude. And the parts that work well work very well – the gorgeous production design, the wonderful performances, and Alexandre Desplat’s beautiful score – come together to tell a tale of resistance against society’s limitations, a tale in which you can feel Del Toro’s heart jumping out of the screen at every moment.