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Josh Reviews The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro’s latest masterpiece, The Shape of Water, is set in the early sixties.  Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute woman who works as a janitor at a government installation.  Her routine, lonely life is shaken when she discovers that the scientists and military officers at the base have captured a monster: a humanoid amphibian creature whose ability to survive the pressures of the deep they believe holds the key to the U.S.’s successfully mastering the hostile conditions of outer space.  Elisa gradually develops a connection with the monster, and when she fears that the military is going to kill him, she hatches a plan with her friends, fellow janitor Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), to attempt to free him.

I adore the films of Guillermo del Toro, and The Shape of Water is a return to the near-perfection of Mr. del Toro’s best Spanish-language works such as Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) and The Devil’s Backbone.  Once again, Mr. del Toro has crafted a gorgeous fantasy film that is grounded in real-life settings with fully-realized, rich characters, and with a fantastically memorable new monster creature.  

The Shape of Water belongs to Sally Hawkins, who is magnificent as the mute, lonely Elisa.  Mr. del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor have created a beautifully drawn character, and Ms. Hawkins knocks the role out of the park with her deeply emotional, affecting performance.  And all without speaking a single word!  Without any dialogue or “internal monologue” narration, Ms. Hawkins and Mr. del Toro are nevertheless successful in creating a film that is focused on Elisa’s inner life.  It is her emotions, and her actions, that drive the film.  This is a very clever approach, and yet one that could have been fiendishly difficult to achieve.  Yet Ms. Hawkins’ phenomenal work makes this all sing.  This is an incredible performance, and it is worth seeing this film just to watch what Ms. Hawkins is able to achieve.

Mr. del Toro’s films always show an enormous affection for the fantasy/monster creatures.  Each of his films contain wonderfully detailed, well-thought-out and beautifully-realized new monster/creatures, and the amphibious creature in The Shape of Water is a wonderful addition to Mr. del Toro’s filmography.  Mr. del Toro’s frequent collaborator, Doug Jones, does an extraordinary job in bringing this creature to life.  Although the creature, like Elisa, does not speak a word in the film, the gorgeous makeup/prosthetics design, combined with Mr. Jones’ incredible performance, communicate exactly what this creature is thinking and feeling.  I have seen many talented actors whose performance was lost under elaborate prosthetics or makeup, but Mr. Jones is a master at this sort of acting.  (He has previously portrayed many wonderful creatures in Mr. del Toro’s films, from Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films to the Faun and the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, and he is also currently one of the best parts of Star Trek Discovery, playing the alien Lt. Saru.)  I was a little worried that this creature might seem like a retread of Mr. Jones’ wonderful previous work as Abe Sapien, but thankfully this is a far different creature and a far different character.  Mr. Jones’ performance is astounding.

Mr. del Toro has assembled a remarkable supporting cast to surround Ms. Hawkins and Mr. Jones.  Most of these supporting characters are thinly sketched, leaning on some familiar archetypes, and yet the actors cast in these roles are so terrific that they bring each and every one of these characters to life and grab the audience’s attention in a way that elevates and surpasses how they might have read on the script page.  After seeing the film, I had trouble naming my favorite characters, because I loved them all!

Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures) brings great warmth to her role as Zelda, Elisa’s friend and shepherd at work.  I love that the film explores the relationship between these two women.  Ms. Spencer’s humor and good-natured optimism provides an important counterpoint to the darkness of other aspects of the story.  Richard Jenkins (The Cabin in the Woods) is marvelous as Elisa’s neighbor Giles.  Giles is a brilliant painter, and yet he is struggling to find work in an era in which photography was replacing painted artwork in most commercial advertisements, and he is lost and lonely in his personal life, living as a closeted gay man.  Mr. Jenkins’ achingly gentle work makes your heart break for Giles, even as he also shows us the ways in which, perhaps, Giles has occasionally been his own worst enemy.  Michael Shannon (Man of Steel, Midnight Special) adds another intense weirdo villain to his canon as Colonel Strickland, the military man charged with finding out all of the creature’s secrets, even if he has to beat them out of him.  Mr. Shannon is a scary villain, but I loved how the film would pause occasionally to give us a glimpse of Strickland’s home life with his family.  This is not a nice man (the moment in which he sticks his bleeding hand in his wife’s face while they are having sex turned my stomach, and tells you everything you need to know about exactly who Strickland is), and yet, we can also see that he is a human being, not a mustache-twirling cartoon.  (I also loved the beat in which we see Strickland psyching himself up while looking in the bathroom mirror before he goes to do something bad.  That was another nice touch in a film replete with such nice touches.)  A Serious Man made me a Michael Stuhlbarg (Hugo, Lincoln, Steve Jobs) fan for life, and I loved his work here as the scientist, Dr. Hoffstetler, who is hiding a secret.  Once again, Mr. Stuhlbarg’s quiet, gentle line-delivery masks a core of steel in his character.  I loved the way Hoffstetler’s story played out.

One can always count on Guillermo del Toro’s films to be beautifully designed.  Mr. del Toro is a master of detail, and all of his films have an richness that comes from the way in which every single aspect of the world of that story has been carefully designed and thought-through.  There are no generic-looking locations in a Guillermo del Toro film.  Each new set/location is rich in detail and meaning.  In The Shape of Water, I particularly enjoyed Elisa and Giles’ two apartments, and the way they each seemed to have half of a large set of curved windows.  Those two apartments are wonderfully unique and idiosyncratic, and so are instantly memorable.  And I loved the bizarre but lovely idea that their two apartments were right above a movie theater!  The secret lab in which the creature is being held feels like the apotheosis of all previous sixties government secret labs that we have seen before now on film and TV.  I loved the way Mr. del Toro used color to express mood — the drab, sickly greens in which the lab are drenched (take a look at the photo at the top of this review) instantly set the tone and the mood of that setting.

I was pleasantly surprised by how erotic this film was.  This was a new tool in Mr. del Toro’s toolbox.  Right from the beginning, in which we see how Elisa’s same-every-day, carefully calibrated and timed morning routine also includes some vigorous masturbation in her tub, there’s a sexual frankness in the film that has not been a major presence in Mr. del Toro’s previous films.  This sets the tone that this is an adult story, not a child’s fantasy film.  And this allows Mr. del Toro to slowly, gently build the story towards the surprisingly sensual and sweet moments between Elisa and the creature in the third act.

Alexandre Desplat’s gorgeous score is perfect, and truly elevates the film.  I adored the beautiful main theme; it was sweet and haunting and very memorable.

As was often the case in Mr. del Toro’s Spanish-language films, there are some moments of intense violence in the film that are shocking.  But over-all, like so much of Mr. del Toro’s oeuvre, The Shape of Water is, at its heart, an endearingly sweet, gentle film.

I loved it, and I can’t wait to see it again.

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