Film Review: 'The Shape of Water'

 (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

(Fox Searchlight Pictures)

★★★1/2

Is it weird? Yes, but only for a moment. Is it good? Absolutely.

Writer and director Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak) has his full directorial skills on display in the strangely entrancing The Shape of Water, a romance / monster movie hybrid that's the finest example of direction this year. In the thick of the Cold War in the 1960's, living above a Baltimore movie theater is the mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who works as a janitor in a top-secret research facility. This is an intriguing universe for this story to exist in: the production design is something akin to an artsy horror film with the vibrancy of a musical or romance. Baltimore and the facility look dystopian, yet the cinematography and score frame the setting and its characters beautifully.

And yet Elisa's life lacks spark; being mute, nobody really relates to her on that level. She does have a caring coworker in Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who interprets her sign language for others, as well as her troubled but caring neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). At the facility, Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) imports the latest find: an amphibious human-like creature (portrayed by Doug Jones), with a menacing appearance and capable of being the ultimate threat in the facility.

 (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

(Fox Searchlight Pictures)

As Giles, our narrator, tells us in the film's transcendent underwater opening sequence, it's a story about a princess, the one she loved, and the monster that threatened to tear them apart. But as the film shows us, the labels that apply to the characters are not what they would initially seem. 

The Amphibian Man (as he referred to in the credits) appears capable of thought, understanding and emotion - even if it can't speak a word. So when Elisa and the sea creature cross paths, the two develop a unique relationship where no words are spoken, but everything is said. The sharp performances of Jenkins and Jones attest to that, and del Toro has directed them in such a way as to maximize their emotional impact.

It's for that reason I say The Shape of Water is the most finely directed film of the year, and even if it is not del Toro's best film (I don't think anything could top Pan's Labyrinth for me), he's easily the best director of the crop. The story he's concocted is charming as well, even if its progression is easy to see coming. In terms of making nearly all facets of the film - acting, writing, editing, cinematography, production design - mesh together, del Toro gives Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant) a run for their money.

Save for Elisa and the Amphibian Man, the remaining characters tend to be one-trick ponies. Aside from being a great partner to Elisa, Zelda is rather one-dimensional and receives little to no additional character development to flesh out the main plot. Colonel Strickland, though Shannon's performance is satisfyingly mustache-twirling, isn't a terribly interesting villain. The romance and horror genre tropes remain, but it's their combination in the same film that keeps it fresh.

 (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

(Fox Searchlight Pictures)

There's no denying the weird factor that comes with the film, but arguably, movies show us the bad and the weird all the time. I like Tony Montana (Al Pacino), but I'm packing up and getting out of there if he moved in next door. I like Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but for the love of God, don't leave me in a room alone with the guy. Given those, an inter-species relationship is tame; as long as their actions make sense in the context of the story, we empathize, and that's what makes movies special.

So go ahead, shoot the scene about making love to a fish, or even a peach; as long as it serves the story. By that metric, The Shape of Water is incredibly successful.

Rated R. 123 minutes.

Written by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor.

Directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, and Octavia Spencer.

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© 2015 Rex J. Lindeman.   All rights reserved.   |   (760) 274-5948   |   rexlindeman@gmail.com

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