Shape of Water, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/13/17 10:46:37
(Worth A Look)
There's been a stark difference between the dark fables of Guillermo del Toro's Spanish-language movies and the pulpy entertainment of his English-language work, and while there are moments of crossover ("Mimic" has the feel if not the depth, while "Hellboy II" has some carryover from "Pan's Labyrinth"), it's been fair to wonder if there just might be factors inherent to the different filmmaking environments that push him in different directions. "The Shape of Water" suggests that maybe this is not the case - more than anything else he's made in English, it's a work with ambitions beyond just fun, and a successful one.It's a film about lonely people. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is established as such even though there are clearly people who are quite fond of her, with living arrangements and a "morning" routine built around not just having no partner but no expectation of one. Sure, her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is fond of her, but he's gay (and therefore must approach new attractions very tentatively in early-1960s Baltimore). She works the swing shift as a cleaner at a nearby Defense Department facility, where her being mute since birth means her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a big talker, doesn't get interrupted, but the racial difference would make friendship outside of work awkward. Of course, Zelda being black is nothing compared to the "asset" recently brought in - an amphibian humanoid from South America (Doug Jones). He seems feral, mauling keeper Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) at first opportunity, but Elisa secretly finds a way to communicate with it, alarming scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has an isolating secret of his own.
There is in many ways a beauty to be found in this loneliness, even if del Toro never fetishizes it. There's desperation to Elisa and Giles even if their friendship is something beautiful as a result. They often huddle in Giles's apartment watching old movies on a tiny black-and-white television despite living above a palatial movie theater (though it's seen better days and bigger audiences as well), finding it easier to stay there when going outside is so fraught. Hoffstetler's loneliness is forced upon him and messes with his moral compass in ways that fascinate, while Strickland is confounded by his: He feels disconnected from the nuclear family that's supposed to satisfy him and discovers that his work considers him disposable, and it brings out his cruelty. It's no comparison to the creature, presumably the last of his kind, whose well-earned hostility turns to a sort of wonder at anyone seeming fond of him.
It's the sort of often-silent, under-a-bunch-of-prosthetic-makeup performance that Doug Jones has made a career specialty, especially in his films with del Toro, and in a way, Elisa is the sort of woman Sally Hawkins specializes in as well, although to be fair, that the point of her breakout role in Happy Go Lucky was a character working at her optimism makes it much easier to see in her later parts. Still, she's undeniably great at it, putting the extra effort into making Elisa's moments of joy genuine even as she gets to put just as much force into her anger and frustration. Since del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor only give Hawkins a couple of scenes where Elisa gets to explain herself directly to the audience via subtitles, the actress often has to make Elisa's thoughts clear in gestures and body language without over-emoting - after all, being a bit withdrawn is part of her character.
It leaves room for plenty of good work by Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer, both of whom play people who tend to let words flow out uncontrollably to fill Elisa's silence. Michael Shannon has a careful sort of restraint as Strickland - there's a viciousness to him that the audience is almost waiting for Shannon to tear into, but he holds back, playing the man as abrasive but not crazy-eyed or particularly wolfish through most of the movie, finding the tone that the stern guy who feels guilty about how he bends the rules but can't afford to show weakness usually would be, and Shannon does well to put the character on that line even if his actions don't suggest he belongs there. The character is a nifty contrast with Michael Stuhlbarg's Hoffstetler, with Stuhlbarg diving into the tension created by his opposing ideals.
That's a lot of characters that are seemingly built around the specific cast members, and that's probably no accident: Del Toro's most recent films have been celebrations of their genres, sometimes doing the unexpected but never undercutting the things that work (aside from generally being happy to ditch the origin story in order to get to the last stand, which he arguably does here as well). He uses the familiar character actors as building blocks and does the same with genre, letting the audience import backstory from The Creature from the Black Lagoon and liberally referencing classic Hollywood romances. It's never lazy pastiche, happily, as del Toro uses the familiar to lay things out quick and refine them into things that work together and pull in the same direction, creating something that resonates with familiarity but always feels specific.
Del Toro doesn't cover that core up, but he certainly puts a nice gloss on it. He opens with a sequence that immediately puts the audience in the right frame of mind - a beautiful but dreadful unreality - and builds on it with every frame, building a dirty but elaborate world with his crew, a fine balance between glisten and grime whose absence indicates a sort of fantasy, whether one that corresponds to Giles's old movies or an imagined but hollow perfection. There are occasional stumbles, especially when his desire to evoke classic cinema runs into his desire to talk frankly about sex; after an eyebrow-raising moment at the start, the filmmakers seem to become more clumsy and timid. It may also peak a bit too early, mainly because a heist sequence at the center works so well.Some may argue that these imperfections are the result of too much polish and comfort - that with a major studio's specialty division behind him and a more well-honed instinct for the popular, it may not be possible for del Toro to replicate what he did before. Nevertheless, this is the type of movie that those who love his early work have been waiting for him to make with Hollywood resources, and not many could make a better version of it. It's a lovely fable, and those who love monsters, classic romances, and the intersection of the two will likely love it even more.
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