Guillermo del Toro is more than just a filmmaker, but a master of the craft of art all-around. Primarily known as a film director, del Toro has also collaborated on museums, video games, animated films, television shows, visual art, musical compositions, among other things. So when a del Toro film comes about, its a big deal. Del Toro is not a filmmaker afraid to take risks in filmmaking and go outside the conventions of genre. Though primarily known for his fantasy work, del Toro has also strayed into horror and sci-fi genres before, twisting each out of their normal conventions into something completely new in execution. Del Toro’s pension for the weird has given way to films like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy,” “Pacific Rim” and “Crimson Peak” redefining what it means to be a fantasy, sci-fi, action and horror film respectively. That being said, I haven’t seen such love for del Toro than I’ve seen for “The Shape of Water,” a smaller scale film for the Mexican filmmaker, but one that found itself in seemingly closer quarters than his previous work.
And for good reason, “The Shape of Water” is astounding, and one of the best films of the year.
Set in 1962 Baltimore, at the height of the Cold War, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor working in a secret government facility housing confidential research assignments. She lives alone, across the hall from the outgoing, but sheltered Giles (Richard Jenkins), an idealistic gay man living in secret. Elisa also has a best friend at work, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who does more talking for the both of them. When their new, intimidating boss, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) descends upon the facility with a strange, humanoid creature (Doug Jones), Elisa soon begins to realize that the amphibian man faces many of the same struggles she faces as a disabled person in ’60s American society. Feeling love for the creature, and with the reluctant help of Giles and Zelda, she then attempts to break the creature out of the facility to free it from the cruel grasp of Strickland.
Listen, I know that “woman/humanoid amphibious creature” romance might sound strange, and believe me it is, but the way in which del Toro is able to construct the film around the longing that each character feels for life that goes into their help with the creature to be with Elisa is breathtaking to say the least. With Elisa lacking a voice to stand her ground, Zelda’s position as a black woman in the early ’60s and Giles’ state as a closeted gay man, each of them have a connection with the creature and an obligation to uphold to make sure they can free at least one member of their motley crue. Elisa’s connection with the creature goes deeper, and the way that del Toro is able to construct an entire love story without a single word so heartbreaking and pure is something to behold.
That being said, “The Shape of Water” isn’t always pure. It’s profane, violent, sexual, yet never feels exploitative in its own right. The film simply refuses to glamorize the ’60s in the way that many other films do. “The Shape of Water” seeks to show the world that marginalized groups lived within during this time, and how those in power refused to see a difference between humans of a different disposition, race or sexuality with that of an unknown creature of no other kind. It shows the lengths those in power will go to to keep themselves in power and to silence those who dare to oppose how they do things. It’s a thrilling, occasionally frightening, but always captivating way of painting this time period with stylistic frivolity that still remains more grounded than nearly all other films of its kind.
Performances in the film are spellbinding to watch. Hawkins is at a career high here (which is saying a lot), portraying more through her actions than most actresses could do with an entire screenplay of words. Hawkins has this raw physicality about her, especially in her face, that makes Elisa, even without uttering a single word, as one of the most compelling characters I’ve seen in any film this year. Unlike some of the other best performances this year, Hawkins isn’t alone in her endeavor here, but is joined by a supporting cast to die for. While Shannon is as good as ever as the slimy, despicable Strickland, it’s actually Spencer and Jenkins who really get up there with Hawkins to steal the film. Jenkins is a gentle, funny soul who only seeks to feel the love that he feels for others, despite failure. It’s a heartbreaking performance, but one that finds levity in the darker moments that Jenkins hits perfectly. Spencer, already an Oscar winner, also finds great levity as Zelda, but also hides a bevy of pain behind her talkative façade. She’s the voice of reason in the film, but carries baggage that keeps her from abstaining from the dangerous task at hand. Spencer has an emotional range here that’s impressive to say the least, but the way she can layer the conflicting elements of Zelda is even more impressive to watch. It’s a killer cast all around.
Del Toro, above all else, is a visual director. Not just in the sense that his films are beautiful, which “The Shape of Water” is, but in that del Toro is simply such a visual storyteller on top of that that he can have much of the film being completely silent and yet completely captivating as if it were a talky Aaron Sorkin piece. Del Toro picks up on tiny details, details that one might not think much of, or even pick up on and wonder why any filmmaker would focus in on such a minute thing, but del Toro always finds a way to find relevance and beauty in the details, and as the final image of the film begins to take shape in its final act, these details reveal things about the characters and the story that would’ve otherwise gone unnoticed otherwise, things that bring out much of the visceral beauty that “The Shape of Water” has to offer.
Shot by Dan Lausten, who shot one of my favorite horror films of all time, “Silent Hill,” bathes the film in a sickly green glow, evoking the slimy environments and amphibious nature that the film takes on in execution. “The Shape of Water” is shot similarly to a lot of French New Wave films, with a quiet, feminine, sensitive image painting the film in a delicate light that makes the brutal touches “The Shape of Water” eventually gets to so much more jarring and emotionally resonant when the blood finally begins to spill. Lausten has a way of beautifying horrific things in a way that I haven’t seen in a cinematographer before. He did it in “Silent Hill,” arguably one of the most beautiful horror films of the 21st century, as well as he did in “Crimson Peak,” also directed by del Toro. He finds a subtle, gothic view of things, and much like a Spanish cathedral, crafts something equally beautiful and intimidating all in one.
This past year, my third most listened to artist on Spotify was Alexandre Desplat (falling only behind Lily Allen and Lady Gaga). Not only is Desplat my favorite composer, but also my prime studying music when I need to get things done. His work in “The Shape of Water” is no less spectacular, if it is quite different than his previous work. It still has that classically beautiful sound to it, but there’s an unconventionality about the sound of the film that really fits into the tone that “The Shape of Water” is seeking to strike. Taking textbook Desplat and twisting it to be slightly uneasy feeling fits the film to such a T that I often forgot Desplat was even playing in the background.
“The Shape of Water” is one of del Toro’s best films to date, with only “Pan’s Labyrinth” being in the same ballpark as it, which is quite possibly one of the highest compliments you can give a film. This is a strange, beautiful, frightening, touching, pertinent, expertly crafted film that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It’s a twisted “Beauty and the Beast” love story that somehow is able to feel more like a fairytale, however twisted, than “Beauty and the Beast” did in March (and I loved “Beauty and the Beast”). Bolstered even further by wondrous performances (including serious Oscar contender Sally Hawkins), a perfect musical score from Desplat and pristine photography from Lausten, every element of “The Shape of Water” comes together to reveal something far more human than we have come to deserve. If “Amélie,” “Alphaville,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Before Sunrise” and “E.T.” all became one film touched by the directorial levity and eloquence of Guillermo del Toro, you would have “The Shape of Water,” and it’s as glorious on screen as it sounds on paper.
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Octavia Spencer.
Runtime: 123 minutes
Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language.
Opens Dec. 15 exclusively at Regal Ballantyne Village.
Fox Searchlight Pictures presents, a Double Dare You production, a Guillermo del Toro film, “The Shape of Water”