James Cole Clay // Film Critic
THE SHAPE OF WATER
Guillermo del Toro has achieved legendary status as a filmmaker. His whimsical tales have pushed the boundaries of the filmgoer’s imagination in ways that very few filmmakers have been able to accomplish. From HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY to his masterpiece PAN’S LABYRINTH – and even with his first film, CHRONOS – del Toro makes the unfathomable possible.
His latest, THE SHAPE OF WATER, is an unconventional tale of love, acceptance and discovering beauty through what the surface would consider lacking or monstrous. Being pushed to the limits of our sexuality and imagination is a near-impossible feat to accomplish in 2017, especially when we have access to pretty much anything. Del Toro’s mind is a singular device — and here, he’s challenging himself to please his audience by celebrating the magic of cinema through his characters and the images he carefully reveals on screen.
The grimness of life has consumed Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins). She’s an orphan who has lost her ability to speak from a physical trauma she experienced as a child. Eliza lives her life in routine: She works as a cleaning steward at a secret government facility and she’s next door to her platonic life partner Giles (Richard Jenkins). The two live a lonely life with only each other to communicate with through American Sign Language. (It must be noted that del Toro made the cast’s hands visible when performing the hand signals. Many films don’t dare show the craft and beauty of the language, and Hawkins achieves a softness to her performance without ever saying a word. This, on top of her performance in the under-seen MAUDIE this year, make her performance the one to beat this awards season.)
At work Eliza pals around with fellow custodian Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a faithful friend who knows Eliza, but never truly understands the “magic” that lives inside her. Spencer’s ability to appear matronly on screen isn’t a novel concept, but under del Toro’s direction she shines like she hasn’t in years. It’s the subtlety del Toro is able to capture that makes THE SHAPE OF WATER wondrous. Yes, even it’s villain, Richard Strickland (Micheal Shannon), takes his time in his scenes as he’s spouting about what makes a man and the importance of accountability. It’s not groundbreaking work from Shannon, but it’s easy to see how his ideas about masculinity could be construed in the 1960’s.
Del Toro’s film, edited by Sidney Wollinsky (HOUSE OF CARDS), moves at a brisk pace, giving you the critical plot details and leaving the blubber on the floor. There’s so much to enjoy about this film — It’s stock full of character beats and makes for a fascinating monster movie.
Del Toro wants to show the evil inside humans while revealing the tenderness of a creature that’s otherworldly, which is exactly why he cast his go-to man, Doug Jones (PAN’S LABYRINTH) opposite of Hawkins. The aquatic creature is stunning to behold, but that’s not the point or even real beauty of the film. It’s the moments of poetry speckled in through del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s script that bring room for its characters to react to the “monster’s” behavior and biology. This is a film that breathes; it has a life that extends beyond the initial thrill of a 6-foot-tall, web-footed man trapped in a creepy military lab.
THE SHAPE OF WATER is near perfect, but at times, del Toro’s love of nostalgia gets in the way of moving the story forward. It has a familiarity that hinders the newness and excitement of the downright incredible moments of character. If del Toro could have subverted expectations just a little bit, this could have been an all-time great romance. However, these are minor knits to pick, and this just shows that del Toro is a romantic first and foremost. The joy of the director’s passion encourages you lean as close as possible to the screen.
THE SHAPE OF WATER is now playing.