Awards season rolls on and Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water has been near the top of my priority list for a while, now. Today is the first day it’s made it within reasonable driving distance, so I ventured out to an old-school theater (not even stadium seating!) to catch the first showing and see what all the buzz has been about. Del Toro is practically a god in film geek circles and he always brings something interesting to the table. I’m not quite the del Toro diehard that a lot of others are (though I have loved a few of his films), but I’m always intrigued to see what he has to offer.
The Shape of Water is a period piece (a del Toro hallmark) taking place during the sixties. When a bizarre amphibian man (Doug Jones) is brought into a research facility, mute cleaning lady Elisa (Sally Hawkins) begins to empathize with the creature, seeing more of herself and humanity within him than others seem capable.
The film feels like an homage to several that have come before, though that may be coincidental. There are certainly elements of movies such as King Kong, Splice, and even Her within the narrative. This film – as was the case with those – addresses the issue of boundaries when it comes to love. What are they? How restrictive should they be? And is humanity as easily defined as most want to assert that it is? All are questions worth pondering and del Toro does so on multiple levels with several characters. Some of those methods are a little more relatable to those of us who live in a world without amphibian men (you know, just speaking for myself), but one would have to be blissfully ignorant to miss the obvious parallels that del Toro draws between them.
The execution of the film and the ways in which the themes are explored are done tastefully and artistically, but the story is still extremely sophisticated on an emotional level and is for mature audiences, only. There is a lot of potential for less enlightened audiences to miss the point of the movie and heehaw and guffaw at what they don’t understand. At first, it didn’t quite click for me why del Toro was throwing in nudity and adult language when the story could have been told without any of it, but now I truly believe he wanted to ensure the R rating to keep the audience as emotionally developed as possible. Of course, the R rating is age restrictive and can’t account for actual maturity, so that’s no guarantee. But it should help, and the film is not appropriate for anyone who isn’t sufficiently cultured.
(How did I handle that last paragraph? Did I do okay?)
The cast is excellent, with Michael Shannon delivering an deliciously nasty performance as an intolerant man using religion as a shield. Octavia Spencer provides an audience anchor as well as some comedic relief. And Sally Hawkins dazzles as Elisa, having to change her approach to acting from the ground up. Without the benefit of being able to use her voice to emote and communicate to the audience, Hawkins must rely entirely on her ability to act through physical expression. She has earned and will receive much attention during this awards season.
There are aspects of the film I could nitpick. The amphibian man’s design is remarkably similar to that of Abe Sapien from the Hellboy films that del Toro also directed and both are even portrayed by the same actor, Doug Jones. So, that feels somewhat derivative but at the same time, I don’t have any suggestions for how to work around it, either. I also never truly felt surprised by anything in the film, whether it be with respect to the narrative, the characters, or the dialogue. Of course, that also means there are no bad surprises where someone suddenly behaves out of character or the story takes an unnatural turn. I also don’t feel that the film is as funny in its humorous moments as it believes it is, but the woman at the back of the theater during my screening obviously disagreed so, as always, mileage will vary on that.
Even if the film is predictable, there’s no denying that it’s elegantly conceived, constructed, and executed. It’s too often the case that people struggle to connect with others and that is frequently due to one particular trait that is generally regarded as a fatal flaw by others who are unwilling and/or unable to see them as a whole person. This movie is a metaphor for that and for the judgments that those people often face for daring to find that connection, should they be so fortunate. The Shape of Water is not my favorite del Toro film but it’s leagues ahead of his last one (Crimson Peak) and should satisfy his fans as well as other sophisticated moviegoers who like thoughtful drama with a science-fiction veneer.
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