by Will Carsh | Staff Writer
Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is a truly bizarre film. It’s also an undeniably great film that finds the visionary director producing some of his best work since 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Del Toro’s latest film is a visual journey that’s few flaws do little in the way of spoiling the remarkable whole. While many viewers will likely find themselves put off by strangeness of the story, few will be able to ignore the level of creativity and artistic freedom on display in the picture.
The story follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who cleans at a government facility in the 60s. Hawkins delivers a powerhouse of a performance, forced in the position of acting without speaking, with the film’s provided subtitles sometimes feeling unnecessary. You know exactly what she’s feeling and communicating without needing the words, and every action that Elisa takes in the story feels justified and sensical no matter how strange things ultimately get. Because it’s at her job that she comes into contact with the film’s visual centerpiece, the Amphibian Man.
The film takes an odd turn at this point, focusing on the interspecies romance between Elisa and the Amphibian Man. This peculiar on-screen relationship between woman and fish is paralleled throughout with del Toro’s relationship with cinema. The film’s soundtrack evokes French romantic cinema, setting the tone for a modern-looking film that in many ways feels like it belongs in a different era. Highlights include a stunning opening shot set in an underwater apartment, an orchestrated song and dance between Elisa and her stranger lover, and the creature standing in an empty theater. Del Toro’s visual talent is rarely not on display, each frame intentional in its composition, its editing seamless. The story is central to the picture, but “The Shape of Water” is equally a visual exercise, the sort of piece that views the medium of film as unique in its tension between writing and images.
The writing itself is strong, opening with a fairytale-style narration before delving into content that quickly earns the film its R rating. It’s a bit tonally jarring, but certainly the sort of tension that del Toro is intentionally seeking. A maestro of the dark fantasy genre since “Pan’s Labyrinth,” del Toro’s story draws strength from its usage and subversion of fairytale and romantic drama tropes. A strong supporting cast rallies around Hawkins, including Richard Jenkins as Giles, Elisa’s lonely, lost, and lovestruck neighbor, Octavia Spencer as Zelda, her co-worker, Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, a scientist assigned to the study of the creature, and Michael Shannon as Colonel Richard Strickland, the film’s demented villain. Events towards the halfway point of the film almost push it into thriller territory without fully committing, and del Toro is perfectly content with letting the picture breathe without sacrificing brisk pacing. Every major character gets some sort of subplot or arc that ties them to the film’s major events, and rarely is a scene wasted. If I’m being a bit vague in my descriptions it’s only only to preserve the element of surprise. There’s no massive plot twist or anything incredibly out of left field, but it’s still a film that benefits largely from not knowing exactly which direction it’s headed. Strickland especially seems to veer dangerously in several different directions while only becoming more and more evil as the story grows, while Giles adds a reflective and personal touch to the narrative with some truly emotionally resonant scenes. The film never loses sight of Elisa as its primary focus, however, and the way that del Toro brings her arc to its conclusion is both satisfying and unexpected. The film’s familiar story never feels stale due to the uniqueness of the premise and its characters, and only grows more investing as it unfolds.
There are, unfortunately, a couple of flaws to sort through. Much of the content that pushes this film into its MPAA rating feels unnecessary and even distracting in some cases. Regardless of how one feels about sex and violence in film on a moral level, it’s hard to make a case that this film’s usage of both improves the world, character, or story in most cases. More often than not, it feels gratuitous, and while del Toro is clearly creating an adult fairytale, much of these moments come across as trying too hard to push it into the “adult” category in fear of it being perceived as too tame. The film always remains beautiful, but it’s hard to praise everything that ends up in front of the camera as “artful” when it sometimes appears needlessly excessive. Furthermore, a more pertinent issue lies with the briskness of the romantic plot. The film does develop the relationship to a point, but in some ways it feels surprisingly rushed, losing some of its much-needed believability in the process. Hawkins manages to carry the film when the script doesn’t in this regard, but one can’t help but escape the feeling that it just isn’t as well-handled as it could be. Once the sparks fly between Elisa and her aquatic beau this becomes less of an issue, but getting the two to that point does feel slightly mishandled.
I should note, however, that while these flaws and the overall bizarreness of the premise may turn some viewers off, the film nonetheless remains an abnormal and unique film that manages to balance imagination and storytelling in equal degree. The concept of a woman falling in love with a sea monster may be too big a pill to swallow for some, but it’s hard to deny that del Toro tells a good story. Bolstered by a stupendous cast and featuring some of the best imagery in a del Toro film to date, “The Shape of Water” may not achieve the heights of its director’s best work, but it comes remarkably close and stands out as an achievement in its own right.