The Shape of Water
4 out of 4 stars
With a career spanning 24 years and now a modest 10 films to his credit, Mexican-born director Guillermo del Toro has never strayed far from his horror/fantasy safety zone. While there are minor elements of that hybrid genre in “The Shape of Water,” del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (“Game of Thrones”) have crafted a romantic thriller period piece that remains wholly original despite being highly derivative and is arguably the best film of 2017.
Set in early 1960s Baltimore during the peak of the Cold War, the plot of “The Shape of Water” contains elements of dozens of other films, including but not limited to “Beauty and the Beast,” “Starman,” “Splash,” “King Kong,” “Barbarella” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” In recent interviews, Del Toro has said the idea for this film started when he was approached by Universal to do a remake of “Lagoon” but was eventually dropped from consideration when he proposed a radical change to the plot line.
Living above a movie theater and working as a night shift maid at a government research facility, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a single woman with no social life, except for exchanges with her closeted gay artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). Mute since childhood, Elisa is also a hopeless romantic with little to no hope of ever finding love.
All of this changes with the arrival of The Amphibious Man aka The Asset (Doug Jones), a being extracted from the Amazon rainforest for no apparent reason by United States Armed Forces. The government doesn’t know quite what to do with The Asset, so they assign Type-A Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) the job of interrogating him. With a cattle prod and a demeanor akin to that of Hitler and Idi Amin, Strickland tortures The Asset for fun and moreso when he doesn’t answer his questions — not having the common sense or wherewithal to figure out that The Asset doesn’t speak or even understand English.
As speaking is not an issue with Elisa, she makes regular visits to Asset’s holding pool, feeds him boiled eggs, plays jazz records and teaches him how to sign, all the while keeping it from her close co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). One night Elisa is seen visiting The Asset by Richard Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), an empathetic doctor vehemently opposed to Strickland’s draconian modus operandi, whose reasons for The Asset’s safekeeping aren’t entirely humanitarian.
What specifically takes place in the second half of the movie will remain a secret here, but it wouldn’t be spoiling anything by revealing that Elisa falls in love with The Asset and Strickland is given an ultimatum by his equally short-sighted superiors to deliver results or not-so-metaphorically cut bait. The tone switches from thoughtful and often brutal character study into full-tilt thriller leading up to a final scene that will transform every viewer with a pulse into a better person simply by witnessing it.
In a recent interview with IndieWire.com, del Toro said: “This movie is a healing movie for me. For nine movies I rephrased the fears of my childhood, the dreams of my childhood, and this is the first time I speak as an adult about something that worries me as an adult. I speak about trust, otherness, sex, love, where we’re going. These are not concerns that I had when I was 9 or 7.”
What del Toro clarifies here shows him moving onward and upward as a filmmaker. He addresses the human condition in not all but many ways — intimacy, fear of the unknown, paranoia, anger, romance showing up when not expected, territorialism, sacrifice, the future, the lack of inclusiveness — and he does so within a framework that is apolitical and non-judgmental yet overflowing with unbridled passion.
Everyone with a speaking role in the movie earns their keep, but none moreso than Hawkins who never says a word here and bests her own stellar performance in “Maudie” from earlier this year. Calling on a performer to act without speaking (Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker,” Marlee Matlin in “Children of a Lesser God,” Holly Hunter in “The Piano” — all of whom won Oscars, by the way) is a tall order and one that would cause most thespians to curl up into little dust balls — or worse, go full-tilt over the top. But Hawkins dives into the deep end with immense economy and restraint, and she totally owns the film.
Again, without giving anything whatsoever away, pay close attention to the opening credit sequence and how it matches up so seamlessly with the end of the film; it speaks volumes and then some. It’s clear del Toro and Taylor thought this thing through from every angle and very likely tossed many ideas to the wayside and probably with great levels of white-knuckle regret. This is a lean movie without a modicum of fat, and getting to that point must have been a journey filled with tough choices.
Prepare yourself to be wowed and moved in a manner you’ve never experienced. “The Shape of Water” is an instant and immediate classic and a film that now belongs securely to the ages.
Presented in English with frequent Sign and Russian with English subtitles.