The Shape of Water and all the images you see in this review are owned by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Did it REALLY have to take this long for the darn film to show up in a theater remotely close to me!? While EVERY OTHER film critic in the world got to check this out a few weeks ago, I’ve been sitting here on pins and needles; waiting for the studio to begrudgingly bring this film to the wider masses. There have been a few movies that I’ve been looking forward to quite a bit as we were heading into Award Season, and at the top of the list was this freaky looking cross between Beauty and the Beast and The Creature from the Black Lagoon from one of the best genre filmmakers out there. With only slightly waned excitement due to its slow rollout to general audiences, does this manage to live up to the high expectations set up not only by the wonderful looking trailers but by the ceaseless buzz from every other film critic on the planet BESIDES me, or was this a huge misstep that we’re all gonna look back on with less than favorable feelings once the hype has settled down? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) who’s one of many janitors in a SUPER SECRET SCIENCE FACILITY that’s somewhere in Baltimore which presumably has REALLY specific NDA agreements as the place has been known to house strange and unusual specimens. The latest of said specimens turns out to be some sort of Freaky Fish Guy (Doug Jones) who was captured and dragged out of the Amazon Forest by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Said Colonel is now head of security in the SUPER SECRET SCIENCE FACILITY, at least until the government can figure out what to do with the Freaky Fish Guy, and both Eliza and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are stuck cleaning the room that the creature is housed in. Eliza immediately takes a liking to said creature and the two of them begin an unlikely friendship as Eliza’s mastery of American Sign Language (which she learned due to her being mute) as well as her awesome record collection give the two of them a way to communicate and something to bond over. Colonel Strickland on the other hand is less inclined to get friendly with the Freaky Fish Guy, preferring to use a cattle prod to get the creature in line, and eventually is dead set on dissecting it before it gets any funny ideas. Eliza, along with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) hatch a plan to try and save him as does the mysterious Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who has his own reasons for wanting the creature to be kept alive. Will Elisa be able to protect the Freaky Fish Guy from having his internal organs removed and put into labeled jars? What is Dr Hoffstetler REALLY up to, and how will Colonel Strickland react once he finds out that his own staff is working against him? Seriously, who can look at that Freaky Fish Guy and NOT immediately fall in love with him!?
WOW, was this a fantastic movie! Who would have thought that a romance involving a human and a Freaky Fish Guy would turn out to be one of the best movies of the year and one of the best films in the already illustrious career of its director!? Sure, the Beauty and the Beast remake made a bajillion dollars and that was the original cinematic story of interspecies love, but never before (at least as far as I can recall in the mainstream) has a movie been so unabashedly unashamed to portray such an unusual pairing in this explicit of terms, but that it does so with grace, intelligence, and raw emotional storytelling, just goes to show how visionary of a director Guillermo del Toro really is and what can be done when you know just the right way to start breaking all the rules. There are so many places where this film could have fallen flat on its face or have come off as extremely tone oblivious, but the filmmakers managed to avoid all of that with the end result being a sweet romance, a thrilling adventure, an exploration of the sexual frustrations (and insecurities) that both men and women experience and how that can poison ones worldview and turn them into monsters of their own. That, and there’s not a whole lot of movies out there about dudes in rubber suits getting it on with well-rounded and engaging characters, so if nothing else it at least manages to corner THAT market!
It’s a film defined by its intricacies and as there are many layers to every aspect of its creation; all of which are richly fleshed out and carefully crafted. Where to even begin with this? It’s beautiful cinematography and set designs that effortlessly move between horror and beauty within a grungy mid twentieth century aesthetic? The music that fits the retro feel of the film while giving many scenes a certain dreamlike sense of wonder? The script itself runs like a fine tuned machine as it weaves many thematic elements as well as staples of the genre into one of the most emotionally nuanced and heartfelt movies in some time. Eliza’s struggle is not one of overcoming some sort of flaw or weakness within herself, rather she’s in the right place at the right time to stop an injustice and never wavers in her convictions despite the clear and present danger in every step of her plan and it only strengthens the other characters in the film; some of whom either find salvation and others damnation when faced with such a big hearted person that shakes them out of their complacency. Perhaps there’s a bit TOO much going on as it feels a bit overstuffed at points, but don’t let the depth and complexity of the story get in the way of just how much pulpy sexy FUN this whole thing is from start to finish! Lest we forget, there’s a FREAKY FISH GUY in this movie who’s being hunted down by the HUMAN version of a Freaky Fish Guy; Michael Shannon. As I said, this movie is all about the layers its able to seamlessly weave together and the nearly flawless balancing act of its emotional and deeply complicated story beats with an old school creature feature is right up there with the new Star Wars films in terms of taking something we’re all familiar with and using that familiarity to show us just how differently this kind of story can be done.
As much as the film manages to get all that right, what really solidifies this movie’s place as one of the best of the year is with its main character of Eliza Esposito played by Sally Hawkins. She is the driving force around which everything in this story revolves and Guillermo del Toro couldn’t have done a better job writing her and couldn’t have asked for a better actress to portray that role. The movie doesn’t stop in its tracks to tell us how strong she is and she’s not fetishized the same way other STRONG INDEPENDENT WOMENTM are when they’re portrayed on screen. She exudes genuine feelings; confidence, fear, longing, humor, even a bit of snarky pride which is usually a characteristic reserved for smug overly smart male characters like Doctor House and Sherlock Holmes. Like with Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Wonder Woman, there’s a genuine sense of inner strength exuding from her that refuses to be stopped by a world dominated by (mostly male) opposing forces; though I would say that while Wonder Woman’s is laying it out on her sleeve (or her shiny bracelets as the case may be), Elisa’s is much more grounded in her approach to sticking it to the men who want to keep her down. I’m impressed with everything she does, and not in a condescending LOOK AT HER OVERCOME HER DISABILITY sort of way, but due to how well-crafted and nuanced Sally Hawkins’s performance is and how reliably the filmmakers were able to give her the room she needed to give it. She’s easily one of, if not THE, most fleshed out and three dimensional characters in any movie this year and is the beating heart from which this film derives all of its power and its awe inspiring sense of wonder.
Sadly this movie is not without its faults which, while minor, did bring the movie down a tiny bit. First off, there’s an animal death in here which I never like to see in a movie, and it’s a particularly gruesome one at that. What makes it all the more unpalatable is that the film tries to play it up for laughs which is an… odd choice to say the least and it feels really out of place as the film never REALLY follows up on the implications of what that scene was insinuating. On top of that obnoxiously out of place issue, there’s a plot point (which I hesitate to call a twist as it is telegraphed at the very beginning of the film) that might be a bridge to far for some audiences’ suspension of disbelief. It certainly goes with the fairy tale nature of this Beauty and the Beast story, and the film does at least foreshadow the inevitable outcome, but even in this fantasy world it feels like a stretch of logic as nothing like it is set up within the established lore of this universe. Granted the overall scope of the film is rather small which means that there’s certainly more to this world than what we’ve been shown, but I felt that this plot point which comes up at the very end of the movie could have used a bit more explanation than what we were given, even if it is one of the only ways the story COULD have ended; lest it be a tragedy which would have seriously been a buzz kill on a movie this sweet and romantic. I’d also say that while the subplots involving Dr Hoffstetler and Michael Shannon’s characters aren’t BAD, they do feel a bit overlong and take precious screen time away from Elisa and the Freaky Fish Guy. I don’t feel that we needed to justify or explain either one’s choices and behaviors as they seemed pretty self-evident in the scenes at the SCIENCE FACILITY, so the stuff with the mystery doctor’s primary motivations and Michael Shannon buying a compensation car felt a bit extraneous even if they were well executed scenes. Look, all I’m saying is that I wanted even more time of Elisa and the Freaky Fish Guy doing it in the bathroom! IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK!?
You could certainly argue that there are some more serious flaws than the ones I’ve outlined above, and its frank use of interspecies romance (especially a romance THIS explicit) will certainly turn many viewers away from this, but to me it’s one of the best love stories in quite some time with one of the most engaging and heartwarming protagonists in about as long. It’s absolutely worth seeing in theaters if you can find one that’s playing it, and it’s certainly not a bad way to cap of such an exhausting and downbeat year. Sometimes we need movies like this to take the edge off and get a bit of time away from the stifling reality just outside those theater doors; something that’ll leave you feeling happy and content in the way that only truly great films can pull off which this does with style, substance, and aplomb. Now if only we can get this to work with the other Universal monsters. Sure, they already tried with Twilight, but after seeing the way this one raises the bar… let’s just say that there’s quite a bit of room for improvement.