THE SHAPE OF WATER (Dir. by Guillermo del Toro, 123 min., 2017, USA)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Easily the strangest film this prestige season is Guillermo del Toro’s eccentric romantic masterpiece The Shape of Water. The film opens today at the Ritz Five and is a rather unique take on a love story that is an unlikely mash-up the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, Amélie) and the Universal Monsters. Shape has del Toro returning to his roots to give us a darkly fantastic fairy tale that has the director at his best and most unrestrained he’s been in years.
Set in Cold War era America circa 1962 the film is the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a lonely mute cleaning woman who works in a top-secret government lab. When a mysterious creature is brought in who looks like a hybrid of Abe Sapien from Hellboy and Gill-man from The Creature of the Black Lagoon, Elisa is intrigued and her feelings evolve from pity to love for the monster as the army experiments on him to find out with makes him tick. The reasoning behind Elisa’s interspecies courtship is that the creature is the only one who truly sees Elisa as a whole in their interactions. He doesn’t look down upon her for her handicap, since both do not have the power of speech, but begin to communicate through sign language. When Elisa finds out the gleefully sadistic Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), plans to perform a vivisection on the creature, she puts into motion a plan to save her love and set him free from the facility.
The Shape of Water is a timely fairy tale with political underpinnings that teaches us the scariest monsters are oftentimes in plain sight and sometimes hail from suburbia. Elisa Esposito’s mute immigrant status is no accident and neither is the fact that her only friends are a closeted advertising artist (Richard Jenkins) and a black woman (Octavia Spencer) who are all marginalized and suffer bigotry and prejudice in one form or another throughout the film. The love story at the heart of the Shape does take a bit of a trust from the viewer, but if del Toro has proved anything as a director, it’s been the ability to show us the humanity in almost any creature no matter how grotesque. Thanks to a fearless and captivating performance by Hawkins paired with del Toro’s Monster Muse Doug Jones, we not only take the jump with our heroine, but also find a profound joy in the inspiration her relationship brings to those around her.
The Shape of Water is easily one of Guillermo del Toro’s best. The film is a touching love story that also functions as a scathing commentary on the state of the union. Brilliantly acted and flawlessly executed, the film manages to transcend the fairytale template, since Elisa’s love doesn’t transform the creature into a prince, and this doesn’t falter her love one bit. A love story birthed by a pure love of cinema that’s derivative as it is celebratory of its many inspirations, Shape is a breath of fresh air in this Oscar season that feels cluttered with the usual biopics and period dramas. While dealing in the tropes of horror del Toro has crafted an elegant, sympathetic and very human story; one of outsiders and love and the lengths those without it will go to achieve it.