The Shape of Water Review: Water Dancing to Gold
The Shape of Water review: Del Toro makes his case for the Best Director Oscar in a film that should be in the discussion for best picture.
This time of year is typically rife with films vying for the attention of the Academy Awards. Studios hold onto their Oscar-baity films until the end of the year, in part because people have short memories and a film released in December has a much better chance of receiving a nod from the Academy (and other award groups) than a film released in January, and in part because the month has just become synonymous with quality movies.
Because of that, films coming out in December (that aren’t banking on family-friendly audiences or people interested in movies about wars in the stars) need to be good to succeed. They need to be very good. Thankfully, The Shape of Water is.
Director Guillermo del Toro has made his reputation thanks to a series of original films that drift into the realm of fantasy while keeping one foot planted in reality. The Shape of Water fits firmly in that mold, and it further expands on another staple of del Toro’s style, his attention to detail.
The Shape of Water is a fairy tale of sorts, but it’s also a dance, with scenes connecting to each other through clever tricks that can only be accomplished in a film where the final product is a whole. A rhythmic sound that begins in one scene takes on another form and continues in the next; a visual pattern is created in one format then broken in another; movement is teased in one form and then paid off in an unexpected but satisfying way in the next frame.
Del Toro treats his film as a complete object, which makes even simple scenes seem vital. A commute on a bus to work is a necessary component in establishing the mood of the heroine Elisa (Sally Hawkins), and what should be a forgettable string of scenes is ultimately an intricate piece of the puzzle. Little moments become big ones without warning, meaning there is very little fat on a film that moves at its own pace, and yet never slows down.
Set during the Cold War in the early days of the Space Race, Elicia Esposito is a janitor at a defense laboratory somewhere near Baltimore. Elicia, mute since she was abandoned as a child, and her best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), are constantly overlooked as the clean the complex filled with classified government projects. When Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a man-in-black government agent type, arrives at the lab with a mysterious asset, Elicia and Zelda are tasked with cleaning the aquarium-like lab.
Through a combination of timing and her own curiosity, Elicia soon discovers that the asset is a humanoid amphibian (Doug Jones) that looks straight out of the Black Lagoon. And despite the assertions of Strickland and most of the lab staff, the creature is intelligent. As the tests grow ever crueler, Elicia comes up with a bold plan. With the help of her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), another outcast, Elicia begins to dream up a way to free the creature.
Throughout the movie, del Toro continues to play with the audience’s expectations. He establishes things that you assume will play out one specific way, then never mentions it. It’s a deliberate misdirect on Del Torro’s part, and an effective one.
Although the film’s focus is on the amphibian man, the star is Elicia. Hawkins portrays her with an innocence that could easily be mistaken for naivety, but it’s actually closer to a sense of wonder laid over optimism. It’s an impressive performance, done almost entirely without language. As she and the equally nonverbal amphibian man grow closer, it’s a testament to the film that they don’t need words to tell a compelling story.
The film succeeds because of Hawkins and Jones (who seems to be vying for the role of king of the quality CGI characters in the same way that Andy Serkis became king of the mocap characters), but it excels because of the supporting cast. Shannon is especially creepy, and he proves once again that he would be a disturbing choice for a rom-com. It’s easy to call his character sick and twisted, but he was a man of the times. That doesn’t excuse his actions in any way, but it makes him more interesting to know his motivations.
The story is a little predictable and it would have been nice to have seen a little more of Jones’ amphibian man, but the story is only one component of it. The entire piece feels like a pleasant dream. The Shape of Water is going to face stiff competition this year during the award season, but del Toro has proven yet again that his name deserves to be mentioned when discussing the top directors working today.
The Shape of Water review conclusion
The Shape of Water deserves to be mentioned in the Oscar discussion, and even deserves the nominations it will probably earn – especially del Toro for best director (and possibly Hawkins for best actress, but that’s a longshot). It probably doesn’t have much of a chance of winning – it’s a crowded year with films like Dunkirk and Darkest Hour to name just a few – but it deserves to be in the conversation.
Del Toro’s fairy tale come to life may not be the best film of the year, but there’s a good chance it could end up being the favorite of many.
The Shape of Water is rated R with a run time of 123 minutes.