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The Shape of Water. A Review
Guillermo Del Toro is one of those special directors where no matter the subject matter, no matter the cast and no matter the budget, I will be there to experience the next chapter in his story. He really captured my attention with movies like Hellboy and Blade 2 as a young comic fan, but being that I am a proper cinefile I went back and dove into his earlier work over the years, the likes of Cronos, The Devils Backbone and of course Pan's Labyrinth, all of which are great movies with the latter being damn near perfect.
His last outing, Crimson Peak, a ghost story with a Gothic backdrop was a decent movie, but not quintessential Del Toro. Even Pacific Rim, with it's huge budget and movie stars falls short of even some of Del Toro's more middling filmography. In The Shape of Water, the master of monsters and fairy tales looks to get back to his wheel house, and he may just take home some hardware in the process.
The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor at Occam Aerospace Research Center in Baltimore during the Cold War. One day while doing the rounds in a special wing of the facility with her friend Zelda, Elisa comes into contact with a tank filled with water, and upon further investigation finds that something, big, is living inside. Cleaning the wing day after day, Elisa finds that the tank held a amphibian-humanoid creature known as "the asset".
While at first hostile because of it's treatment at the hands of Colonel Richard Strickland, eventually Elisa is able to connect with the asset and even him some words in sign language, finding him a better companion than most of the humans she comes into contact with. Concerned that there is a Solviet spy in the facility, Strickland and the higher ups decide the best course of action is to kill the asset and learn as much as they can from the autopsy. When Elisa hears news of the planned dissection, she hatches a plan to break the amphibious man out of the facility.
Phew, listen that was about as enjoyable for me as it was for you. The Shape of Water is a pretty low concept movie, but for the subject matter it is a surprisingly simple in it's execution. There is almost no difficulty understanding the plot or any attempt to confuse the viewer, which is helped by the amazing script that Del Toro wrote alongside Vanessa Taylor. The plot is super tight with incredibly small ticky tack issues and some of the best pacing work of the year bolstered by beautifully natural dialogue that runs the range of emotions from hilarious to down right frightening. I would be quite surprised if Del Toro and Taylor were left out of the original screenplay category in this years Oscars.
Almost as much of a Del Toro standard as his incredible monster designs (Which we will discuss later) are his terrific characters and ability to direct actors. Del Toro has gotten some great performances from actors over his career but The Shape of Water may own his two best. Sally Hawkins is simply unbelievable in this movie, at first glance you would think playing a mute using sign language to communicate the whole movie would limit her performance and feel restrictive, but it is the complete opposite. Hawkins uses her facial expressions and hand gestures beautifully almost as if she had spent her whole life without saying a word. This is not only the strongest performance I have seen by an actress this year, it is the strongest by an actor, period.
Playing the Vader to her Luke is the one, the only....Michael Shannon. They really don't make them any better than this guy, Shannon owns this role as the heartless Colonel Strickland. If you have ever seen Shannon in a movie before you know what I'm talking about, you can almost see the evil steaming off him like a fresh dog turd in the cold. He provides the perfect villain in this story and absolutely elevates this movie every time he on screen, and even sometimes when he is not just by the mention of his name. Not to mention that early in the movie the amphibious man relieves Strickland of his ring and pinky finger on his left hand. So for most of the movie he is walking around with this bloody gauze over his reattached fingers, frightening viewers with the notion that he may just snap and rip those zombie digits off.
I would feel remiss if I did not give proper shout outs to the rest of the cast, most specifically Octavia Spencer as Zelda and Richard Spencer as Giles, Elisa's neighbor and best friend outside work. Both are obviously tremendous actors with track records to back them up, but they both add so much heart and humanity to a movie that at times would have felt a bit lacking in that category. Really all of the actors in this movie did a fantastic job, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nick Searcy and David Hewlett all turn in small supporting, although important roles. Then there is the performance of Doug Jones as the Amphibian Man.
As mentioned before, well a few times actually, Guillermo Del Toro is a bit of a master of monsters, more specifically the design and practical costumes that bring his creatures to life. Not only does he have this incredible knack of being able to create these beings that are absolutely out of this world, but he also one way or another finds the humanity in them. The Hellboy movies are more or less about this exact theme but the Amphibian Man is possibly his most impressive monster to date. Doug Jones has worked with Del Toro six times now and does a great job of filling the suit and bringing that absolutely necessary humanity to the Amphibian Man.
I have lumped a lot of praise on Guillermo Del Toro over the course of this review but that is because he absolutely deserves it. Along with all the other accolades I have thrown onto The Shape of Water, I believe it is also his finest job of direction in his career. The camera truly helps tell the story, the settings and the way he shoots them are otherworldly and his knack for getting the best performance out of his actors is on full display. Del Toro has been looked at as a top class Director for a while not but The Shape of Water will elevate him from niche fairy tale and occasional blockbuster director to one of the finest artist in the medium.
The Shape of Water is without question one of the finest movies to come out this year. There are so many great things about it and almost none to complain about and I love to complain. The script is so tight and well paced, the performances are top notch and the direction is possibly the best I have seen all year. If Crimson Peak turned you off of Del Toro it is time to get back onto the train and experience one of the best of his generation at the top of his game.