Powerful, passionate, and poignant, del Toro’s The Shape of Water hits all the right marks

Review by C.J. Bunce

With the unique signature of the only director that could pull off a film like The Shape of Water, have no doubt it is worthy of a parade of Oscar recognition.  As for direction The Shape of Water is a triumph for Guillermo del Toro’s sheer bravery in choices.  As for acting it’s the perfect mix of the four top acting tiers: a superb performance in a challenging role by a lead actor and actress, and a superb performance in a challenging role by a supporting actor and actress.  del Toro’s story, too, is novel, soaring and magnificent, even if it may be derivative of many fairy tales, folklore, and past fantastical films.  In fact it’s del Toro’s intelligent reimagining of stories from Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast on a backbone of films like King Kong, Splash, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon that lends some familiarity and authenticity to its story and characters to touch audiences.  Ultimately the finely crafted assemblage is greater than the sum of its parts, forming the stuff of those classic best pictures of the year of decades past.

The idyllic early 1960s is stripped of its patina to a very real and difficult world beyond the happy families as seen in the slick marketing and television shows of the day, at least for the average person trying to find their way.  A mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work in a quasi-government corporate facility as janitors.  When a Fed named Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings a gilled, man-like creature (Doug Jones) he captured in South America to the facility for study, Elisa covertly befriends it.  When Strickland and his military cronies decide it’s time to vivisect the creature, Elisa enlists a friend in her apartment complex (Richard Jenkins) to try to get the creature to safety, with even Zelda and a lab researcher (Michael Stuhlbarg) joining along in her plan.

The tragedy of Oscar season is the lack of nomination for Doug Jones, the modern Man of a Thousand Faces (and bodysuits), who has played every character in commercials from McDonald’s Mac Tonight to one of the terrifying Gentlemen of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Marvel’s Silver Surfer, to the star of del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, and ghosts in his Crimson Peak and Abe Sapien in his Hellboy series, and he is currently headlining Star Trek Discovery, again in prosthetics.  It is a truth that no other actor has the experience and physical skill and talent required to perform in the roles he is sought out for, and his “Amphibian Man” in this film is a showcase of his singular grace, elegance, and style.  His understanding of animal movements and reactions is impeccable.  Sally Hawkins, seen in countless performances (a standout in Fingersmith, Layer Cake, Tipping the Velvet, Blue Jasmine, where she was also nominated for an Oscar, and Never Let Me Go, among other films, and even a bit part in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace), perfectly captures a life in silence and a hopeless romantic.  Her piercing stares at Strickland nearly slice him in two.  Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures, Snowpiercer, Medium, The X-Files) plays Zelda for laughs for the most part, and her ramblings about her lazy husband and her support of Elisa are wonderful.  Richard Jenkins (Silverado, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Witches of Eastwick, Wolf, Absolute Power, Into Thin Air, Jack Reacher, Bone Tomahawk, LBJ) takes on a role as neighbor Giles, a part like nothing audiences have seen him play before, a down on his luck ad man, he is boxed in from gaining the love that he seeks.  del Toro makes it possible for each moviegoer to see himself/herself in each of these characters.

In any other film Shannon and Stuhlbarg’s performances would sweep award season.  Twice nominated for Academy Awards, Michael Shannon (The Current War, Midnight Special, Man of Steel, Jonah Hex) takes his government man Strickland into dark places no one wants to go, rivaling Ralph Fiennes’s Nazi officer in Schindler’s List as one of the most vile, repugnant, despicable villains to see the big screen.   This is in part due to del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay, designing him to be ugly in every single way.  The researcher played by Michael Stuhlbarg (The Post, Call Me By Your Name, Fargo, Doctor Strange, Arrival, Hitchcock, Lincoln, Men in Black 3, Hugo) is a stock character we’ve seen before, yet Stuhlbarg continues to shine in every film he touches.

Like del Toro’s past works, expect nothing mainstream about The Shape of Water.  Its cultural, social, and political themes will likely be jarring to some, its use of sex as a theme will offend some, and if you positively will not engage a film that has a scene of extreme violence with real (and unreal) creatures–even though relevant and integral to the story–then this may be one for you to pass on.  But if you consider the quirks in any film and overcome your own reservations, you’re bound to witness a masterful cinematic spectacle orchestrated by the best fantasy filmmaker in the business (okay–let del Toro and Peter Jackson battle it out for that title).

Keep an eye out for a black and white scene that might not have worked in another director’s hands.  I think it will be remembered as one of the best scenes of the 2010s.

Despite other great works we saw eligible for 2017’s Oscars, with nominations in three acting slots, director, best picture, cinematography, production design, costumes, two sound awards, editing, screenplay, and score, I wouldn’t be surprised if The Shape of Water picks up the first ten listed above.  It’s that good, it’s that unusual, it’s that relevant.  But no visual effects or makeup nomination?

See Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, in theaters everywhere now.



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