In Guillermo Del Toro’s latest masterpiece, a “fairy tale for troubled times,” as he puts it, The Shape of Water instantly transports you into a world where it feels like the real world, yet at the same time, you’re whisked away on a fantasy thrill ride where the outsiders are the heroes and “the man” or “the government” is the villain.
The Shape of Water has Guillermo Del Toro’s signature stamped all over the film, from the architecture of the buildings, to the costumes and music, you feel his hand in everything. It’s such a simple story, a tale of loving the “wrong person at the wrong time” but with Del Toro’s magic touch, it’s a cinematic masterpiece. The main character, Elisa Esposito (played with a sort of quietly elegant desperation by Sally Hawkins of Blue Jasmine, Never Let Me Go, and The Hollow Crown) lives above a movie theater where her next door neighbor is a recovering alcoholic who was fired from his job at an advertising agency. Giles (played by Richard Jenkins) is a “shut in” and only friend seems to be Elisa and the three cats that keep his company. She brings him breakfast when she gets home from working the night shift at a top secret research facility, where she works as a janitor. Her best friend is also her mouthpiece Zelda Delilah (played by Octavia Spencer of The Help and Hidden Figures) friendship is put to the test in the upcoming trials she and Elisa have to endure because of Elisa’s actions later in the film. The other main character is their new boss, Richard Strickland (played by Michael Shannon of Revolutionary Road, Batman V Superman, and many other films) who turns everything on its head by his intrusion into their perfectly ordered world.
The film is elegant and thrilling, and brings an other-worldy feel to a story that had it been told as a straight retelling, would have seemed preposterous. Thanks to poetic narration by Giles, at the beginning and end of the film, along with Elisa’s ethereal theme music that plays throughout the movie, it’s hard to tell where reality and the fairy tale intersect. This is what director Guillermo Del Toro excels at, the blending of the real and imaginary worlds and creating a whole new dimension that still seems probable. The story itself is very simple, told extremely well, with lots of subtext and not-so-subtle messages of trying to dissect the age old question of who the monsters really are: the people that seem different, like Elisa, a mute who never speaks, her alcoholic-but-gentleman of a neighbor who’s trying to redeem himself, her African American co-worker who is the only one who takes her seriously at work, despite (or maybe because of) being an outcast herself just for being African American in the US in the 1960s. The people that the world tells us should be exalted, the scientists, the generals, the police, are they really the good guys doing questionable things in the name of the greater good? Does beating the Russians to the moon negate the torture and murder of beings you don’t understand because they don’t speak the same language as you do? This film does a brilliant job of asking these questions in such a subtle way that you almost don’t even realize that these questions are being asked. It’s asking a simple question: what makes a monster?
All the actors shone in this film, but Sally Hawkins as Elisa and Michael Shannon as Richard were particularly superb. The standoffs between the two characters will cause the hairs to stand up on your arms and leave you shuddering with anticipation of what comes next. The fact that Sally Hawkins says absolutely nothing but you still understand every emotion that comes across her face is nothing short of an Oscar-worthy performance in my humble opinion. She’s the driving force of the film and is never out of character once. She draws you in from the moment she appears on the screen and never lets you go. Michael Shannon is at his best when playing vicious sociopaths and this film illustrates that. He’s absolutely terrifying as Richard Strickland, the head of security that transports the creature to Elisa’s facility. You can feel the hatred he has for this creature seeping out of his very pores until you feel it’s directed at you instead. Octavia Spencer gives another brilliant powerhouse performance as Zelda, and even while doing most of the talking, she never gets overbearing or boring. She keeps a great balance of humor and tension in the film, as she is the Greek Chorus and gives a running dialog of what’s happening.
As I stated earlier, this has to be my favorite film of the year (yes, topping even Wonder Woman and Logan) if not my favorite film of all time. Definitely see it in the theater, in IMAX if possible. It’s a decadent treat you don’t want to deny yourself.
What did you think of the film? Have you seen it yet? What are you looking forward to it for? Let me know what you think in the comments down below and let’s discuss.