MOVIE REVIEW: The Shape of Water

(Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

(Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)


Closing Night film and Special Presentation of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival


Since encountering its Chicago premiere back on October 26th as the Closing Night film of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival, I have been racking my brain as to how to properly describe Guillermo del Toro’s wholly distinctive The Shape of Water.  I can echo others using genre-laced adjectives like “adult romantic fantasy” or an “R-rated fairy tale,” but even pull-quote material like that does not illustrate the experience.  

Smirk and bear with me on this simplicity, but The Shape of Water is like a movie incarnation of a cover song done by the sensational touring YouTube troupe Postmodern Jukebox headed by pianist Scott Bradlee.  If you’ve never seen their work, they take modern songs and give them jazzy vintage spin.  Listening to any one of their arrangements, something familiar is given an initially odd and evocative new tone.  You don’t know what to make of it at first only to have it become infectiously catchy, impressively stylish, and all compliments of audacity as it peaks and crescendos.

That’s The Shape of Water in a bloody nutshell.  Soaringly endearing elements of romance enrapture with a heading spoonful of the perverse for good measure.  Fantastical triumphs of mortal spirit over evil forces are applied to inhuman oddities with jarringly violent consequences.  This is a film of stark peculiarity that challenges your safe zones and clashes with your sense of normalcy for the themes at play.  It asks you to relish in an abnormal spectacle that, like the Postmodern Jukebox music, dazzles with vintage style and extraordinary boldness.

Symbolically draining the tranquil water of imagination filling the entirety of a shabby apartment during the opening establishing shot, The Shape of Water enters a fictionalized Baltimore of the Cold War 1960s and introduces us to Elisa Esposito, played by Blue Jasmine Academy Award nominee Sally Hawkins, awakening from her dreamy slumber.  She is a meek and mute woman of routine living above the twinkling lights and glowing marquee of the Orpheum movie house.  The Visitor Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins is the benevolent struggling artist Giles, her neighbor and protective supporter.  The two share admiration for classic Hollywood entertainment of yesteryear, gems like Glenn Miller's "I Know Why" from Sun Valley Serenade.

The nocturnal Elisa is a third shift cleaning lady alongside her rambling storytelling friend Zelda (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, returning to her The Help wheelhouse).  It is their workplace that carries the intrigue.  They scrub floors and bathrooms in the mysterious and guarded Occam Aerospace Research Center.  Pushing a mop amidst government projects and classified secrets, Elisa keeps her attention in the work until one particular “asset” attracts her curiosity.  

The fiendish Colonel Richard Strickland (two-time Oscar nominee Michael Shannon) has commissioned a scientific team led by Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) to study a lithe and lethal merman-like creature (del Toro muse Doug Jones) found in the Amazon.  Sneaking into the monster’s containment area day after day unbeknownst to the supervisors and captors, Elisa begins to observe and tend to the tortured and shackled amphibious humanoid.  One bereft of voice and the other occupying a savage visage, both captivate each other (and us) with emotive body language and shared empathy to turn communication into kinship and love.

From there The Shape of Water blends and sculpts a myriad of escalating nuances constructing scenes of suspense, romance, menace, domesticity, beauty, pursuit, rescue, and absolute whimsy.  Through the talented ensemble, each of those listed degrees is embodied by brave performances.  A slithering Michael Shannon injects venom with every line delivery to chew words with fiery fangs.  Redlining towards overacting, he’s still a riot because he’s Michael F’n Shannon.  His opposite is represented by Richard Jenkins’s heartwarming confidant, a well-meaning guardian with his own flaws that charms every scene.  Softer yet greater than even that, Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones endlessly impress with wordless displays of patience and silent impact.  Hawkins deserves the Best Actress consideration she is receiving and Jones could co-lead a category of masked performances alongside Andy Serkis’s work on War for the Planet of the Apes.  

Not an inch of The Shape of Water is conventional with production values that are off the charts.  From the opening seconds, composer Alexandre Desplat massages the thick visuals and our cochlear nerves with a touch of French accordion beneath the strings.  Production designer Paul D. Austerberry (30 Days of Night) and art director Nigel Churcher (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) create spacious Oscar-worthy cinematic canvases of rich detail within the vast and cold bowels of industry and the warm domestic settings of homely living spaces and matinee lights.  Cinematographer Dan Laustsen (John Wick: Chapter 2) deftly balances a vibrant classic glow with grizzled noirish shadows.  The ornamental workmanship of The Shape of Water makes a $19.5 million budget look like ten-times that.

Ever the visual filmmaker, del Toro’s fingerprints are all over this film’s flair.  Gunning for greatness and adding to his vitae of Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy series, no one else has Guillermo’s eye for this kind of weighty ambition and frank content.  The over-the-top atmosphere was never going to be this film’s hindrance, rather it is its greatest strength.  What is its drawback, however, is the melee of tones.  Elements in this film can agitate as quickly as others astound, with an aftertaste of fanciful Oscar bait.  Moments swing between the appreciably daring and the jarringly reprehensible.  This film will cause a turn-off point for some or a lightning rod of fascination for others.  Seek to embrace the latter.

LESSON #1: THE POWER OF NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION-- Following Todd Haynes’ beautiful Wonderstruck earlier this fall, The Shape of Water is a symphony of nonverbal communication through Elisa’s experiences.  Muteness, like deafness, does not mean emotionless or noncommunicative.  It just means one has to convey their feelings and expressions through other means.  Striping away the noise, those other forms of communication may be equally if not more connective and intense for emotionality.  Try it for a day.  Mute yourself and summon your other senses.

LESSON #2: THE DEFINITIONS OF “AFFRONT”-- Coiled with vicious brutality, Shannon’s Strickland deals in affront, both as the verb and as the noun.  He words portend his actions as the catalyst of all conflict in the film.  With a bullied Dr. Hoffstetler, a minding-my-own-business Zelda, and the silence of Elisa and the creature, Strickland dominates the verbal energy of conversation with constant disrespect and insolence.  He pushes folks right into Lesson #3.

LESSON #3: DO MORE THAN NOTHING-- This lesson is the rallying call for the actions taken by the protagonists to combat the wrongness happening around them.  Belittled no more, this is the powerless daring the powerful not because of personal gain, but because it’s the right thing to do.  Sympathetic hearts and enduring love win when people take on personal risks, including their own lives, to save another.