The Shape of Water (2017) Movie Review

By: Christian Harding (A Toast) –

The term “visionary” gets tossed around in the filmic scene far too much these days, in this writer’s humble opinion (there are many great directors out there to be sure, but “visionary” is maybe pushing it a bit too far in most cases). But if there was anyone currently working in mainstream directing circles who best deserves that title, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro would most definitely be among these candidates – at least in terms of the sheer wonderment and creativity on display in every single one of his works. Most well known for alternating between a series of consistently intriguing horror-fantasy hybrid passion projects, and elevating typical studio fare by adding his usual creative stamp, Del Toro has made quite the career for himself whilst adapting his own childhood fantasies onscreen for the entire world to enjoy. That now brings us to the man’s latest project, The Shape of Water, which has poised itself recently as being among one of the most significant awards prospects this Oscar season; and for good reason, too. More than anything else Del Toro has made in the past decade, this is easily one of the liveliest, most vital, and original pieces of mainstream genre filmmaking since, I don’t even know, the Lord of the Rings trilogy maybe?

“God help the outcasts.”

Our story, set in the Cold War felt America of 1960’s, follows a mute woman named Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins) who works as a cleaning lady during the night shift at a secret government laboratory of sorts. While on the clock one night, a mysterious creature from the Amazon is brought in to be housed in her facility, along with it an undesirable crew of potentially untrustworthy government folks assigned to deal with the creature. But soon after its arrival, Elisa and the amphibian man (who is never given a name, likely a screenwriting choice meant to preserve its otherworldly nature) establish a bond of sorts, which starts out as a shared connection of humanity and eventually blossoms into something more conventionally romantic. And if that sounds a bit offbeat to you, then you’re not alone. But the fact that Guillermo Del Toro was able to take this admittedly goofy sounding (at least in theory) storyline and make it not only believable and able to be taken completely seriously, but to make it as deeply felt and moving as The Shape of Water soon reveals itself to be is a real testament to his talent and probably marks his greatest achievement as a filmmaker to date.

A Toast
Right off the top, one of The Shape of Water‘s strongest assets is its ensemble cast. Despite a handful of roles potentially coming across as one note or underwritten on the page, Guillermo del Toro is adept at choosing actors who could breathe life into their parts. Industry veterans like Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon don’t exactly do anything especially new or surprising here, but they play to their strengths really well and both make for compelling onscreen presences. Richard Jenkins also makes a strong impression in a sympathetic supporting role as Elisa’s closeted gay neighbor and closest friend, but it’s Sally Hawkins in the leading role who resonates to most out of the entire assembled cast. Hawkins is an actress that has never really stood out to this reviewer beforehand (though there’s no denying that she’s been good in others things beforehand), but she absolutely shines here and gives one of her greatest performances yet. Special mentions should also go to Doug Jones as the nameless amphibian man at the center of this tale, who works through all the heavy prosthetic makeup and is able to make his central creature a tangible, felt presence within the story, thus adding to the central connection between it and Elisa.
Another one of the most impressive and rewarding attributes of The Shape of Water is its ability to work on multiple levels at once, just like the best of Guillermo del Toro’s films. Del Toro has always been incorporating themes of social commentary into his works for his entire career, but never have they been as upfront or prevalent as they are in this film, and here are the just a few of the ways this film could be interpreted as:
1. A really well done, engaging piece of genre storytelling (mostly a hybrid of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, with some musical elements tossed in there for good measure).
2. A sweet, unconventional love story.
3. A story about the plight of underdogs and the perceived “lessers” of society, where the historically disenfranchised manage to find ways to thrive right underneath the nose of the oppressors who never gave them a second thought.
4. A giant middle finger / “stick it to the man” allegory about overcoming systemic oppression.
5. All of these things at once
Still a better love story than Twilight.
Verdict
No matter how you approach it or from which point of view you see it from, The Shape of Water is an outstanding achievement from top to bottom. It marks a new potential career highlight for Guillermo del Toro, who has already seen his fair share of high points beforehand, and is a beacon of light amidst a storm of middling, same-y genre fare and middle of the road dramas which lack imagination and originality. In terms of depicting and reflecting the cultural climate in which it was made and released, seen through the lens of a pulpy genre exercise, it functions as this decade’s equivalent of M Night Shyamalan’s still largely misunderstood The Village. It’s so nakedly earnest that it leaves itself open to senseless mockery and derision from the edge-lord cynic review crowd that runs rampant all over social media these days. It’d be a miracle if this can survive the rest of awards season without getting hot-take’d to death or being meme’d as “that weird fishman romance movie lol”. It’s that exact sort of try-hard edge-lord cynicism that The Shape of Water seeks to deconstruct and tear down, all the while expressing it through one of the most sensational and brilliantly told monster movies in recent memory.

The Shape of Water (2017) Drinking Game

Do a Shot: each time Elisa signs.

Do another Shot: whenever you get a good look at the creature.

Shotgun a Beer: when Michael Shannon dials his mania up to eleven.

Pour a Glass of Wine: In celebration of Guillermo del Toro actually being able to pull off making a fishman romance story both digestible and serious.

About Christian Harding

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