It’s January so all the movies that have Oscar potential are coming out to theaters everywhere after languishing in select theaters during the last few weeks of 2017. One movie in particular that is receiving rave reviews from critics and audiences alike is Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantasy, The Shape of Water. I went into the theaters not knowing what really to expect and del Toro took me and the few moviegoers in the theater on a wonderfully crafted journey.
This review will be spoiler-free.
The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor who works at a research facility. One day, a captured amphibian creature (Doug Jones) arrives at the facility. From there, the two interact and fall in love.
While it appears to be a basic love plot line, the characters, their issues surrounding the main story, the performances, and del Toro’s skill behind the camera is what helped carry this film. From the opening underwater scene, you know that this film will be different. The world is set up immediately as we meet the main players to watch: Elisa, rendered mute by an injury when she was young, is a woman living alone and set in a daily routine and working at a secret government laboratory in Baltimore. Her only two friends are her next door neighbor, starving artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American co-worker that also serves as her interpreter at work. The drama starts its slow but steady build as Michael Shannon’s cruel Colonel Richard Strickland brought in the Amphibian Man to the facility. After Elisa’s first encounter with the “Asset”, she sees him as a misunderstood creature; a different type of man instead of a monster.
The story is emotionally absorbing and assisted by Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful score. Visually stunning, I consider this one of del Toro’s best works, possibly since Pan’s Labyrinth. It displays del Toro’s free range of creative mastery and control of a story. There are times when this story plunges deep into torment and tragedy, but the core relationship between the two unlikely lovers holds the audience tightly, looking for that hope when we return to the couple. Their sweet, loving moments is what you look for after darker scenes. Sally Hawkins’ performance was amazing as she didn’t speak at all, communicating only through sign language. This allowed her to fully use emotion to express how she felt which only elevated your feelings for this heroine. Michael Shannon played in possibly his best role as the Colonel Strickland. A patriot a judgmental moral compass, you can see where he is right but those moments are few in far between given his methods. Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins each deliver strong performance as they support Elisa in her quest for love while managing their own. Frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones was charming as the Amphibian Man, creating an instant chemistry with Hawkins’ Elisa with non-verbal communication. Given the time period of the 1960s, the Cold War subplot is there but not mentioned enough to distract you from the main story, weaving its way in and out to remind you of the time. Del Toro decided to set the film during the 1960s Cold War era to counteract today’s heightened tensions and worked successfully. If this film were set in the current period, I believe it would still be effective because, as an audience, we need this kind of story to give us hope during troubled times.
The Shape of Water is a visually stunning film to behold and reminding audiences that Guillermo del Toro is still an excellent writer and director. This movie has earned its place as one of the top movies of 2017 and a place in the Oscar Race for Best Picture in the coming weeks.