TL;DR – A compelling film that pulls you in with its content and visual style, and then used it to tell a story of a world not that dissimilar from today.
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – No
So today we are looking at a Guillermo del Toro’s monster film, ok wait no that is too broad a category. Ok a Guillermo del Toro’s monster film featuring Doug Jones, ok no that is still too many, Ok a Guillermo del Toro’s monster film featuring Doug Jones as a water monster … seriously still. Now, of course, I kid because all of these films are visually stunning and some of the most fascinating stories in modern cinema, indeed I still think about the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth. So today we are going to unpack Guillermo del Toro’s latest film The Shape of Water which is up for a fantastic 13 Oscars at the moment.
So to set the scene, it is deep in the Cold War where suspicions of Soviet infiltrators are everywhere and nuclear war could break out at any time. Both the Americans and the Soviets are trying to find every possible advantage over each other as the Space Race joins the Arms Race and the world tries to not die in a nuclear apocalypse because of a geopolitical dick waving contest. While this is happening in the city of Baltimore we are introduced to Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) as she goes about her daily routine as a cleaner for a governmental facility that is exploring aquatic phenomena. She starts her day with a bath while she makes her lunch, she checks in on her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) who is a reclusive advertisement artist, and then makes the long bus trip into work where she meets up with her co-worker and friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Now thanks to a childhood injury Elisa is mute, so she listens and signs along as Zelda talks about her day and no good husband. She cleans all night, goes home and sleeps during the day only to get up and rinse repeat, well until one day when a new creature, an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) was brought into the lab by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and everything changes.
So we will get into the story and themes in a little bit, but before we do that I want to take a moment to talk about the amazing cast. There is not a single average, let alone bad, performance in the film. I’d seen Sally in films like Paddington (see review) before where she is the bubbly ball of energy, however, this is a completely different type of role that needs you to have incredible emotional range but you can’t express that range with vocals. This is a beautiful and at times confronting performance and Sally is amazing in the role. Sally’s partner in crime both literally and figuratively is Octavia Spencer who is captivating in every scene she is in. Zelda the character she plays is in a much more precarious position than Sally but she is there every day with a smile and uplifts the whole film with her presence. Doug Jones is one of the best actors working at the moment only I don’t think many people would recognise just how many roles they have seen him in, like in Star Trek Discovery (see review) at the moment. Like Sally, Doug has to do most of his performance through non-verbal means, as well as acting through heavy prosthetics and that is a really difficult job to pull off convincingly. As well as this, the creature design and how Doug uses his full body to emote and give it character, help make it one of the standouts for monster cinema. It has been a while since I have disliked a character as much as I disliked Strickland the film’s big bad, or little bad depending on how you look at it, and while he might be a complete and utter [REDACTED] as a character, he is played magnificently by Michael Shannon who captures the mentality of many at the time. Add to that you have a strong supporting cast with the always delightful Michael Stuhlbarg who is great in everything he does, you have Richard Jenkins who is giving a very understated performance until it is all put in focus, and also it was great to see David Hewlett.
One of the things I really liked about The Shape of Water is how on the surface it appears to be a very straightforward monster film, however, like many of its contemporaries, there is a lot more going on once you dig a bit deeper. Now to dig a bit further we are going to enter [SPOILER] territory, so if you have not seen the film now is the time to skip ahead to the end. One of the key themes running through this film in the hyper-patriotic fantasy of classic Americana of the 1950s. Of course, this is not the first media product to take a stab at dissecting this time period and the high regards it is held in, see Fallout, but it is taking it in fantastic directions. Take Strickland, he is the very embodiment of that 1950s nuclear family, he has the wife and kids, the house with the picket fence, he works for the government and is a defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, but as we mentioned he is also just a real [REDACTED] of a human being. However, despite this, or in many ways because of this, he gets wrapped up so much in his own self-importance that he fails in his mission and worse. Because of these self-instilled hyper-masculine traits, he does not believe in washing his hands after using the toilet, that it is a weakness, well guess what probably contributed to his fingers not reattaching properly? It is also the reason why he fails in his mission because he was so certain that it was a crack team of Soviet spies, that he never considers that it could have been two of ’the help’ that smuggled the creature out of the lab before it could be killed. As well as this, we have the dinner that sells pie, it is the embodiment of the free-market capitalism mixed with Americana. This is embodied with the Pie Guy (Morgan Kelly) who is friendly, charming, and with the vocal inflections of a time long past. However, it is all a ruse, at best it is just there to get you to buy more pie, but as we see when Giles opens up to him, or the African-American couple walks in, it is all a show to cover for ingrained prejudices. Add to this themes of sexual awakening, environmentalism, neo-colonialism, marginalization of people with disabilities, the sexist structures that disenfranchise women, and more. All of this creates a fascinating film that engages you from start to finish.
In the end, do we recommend The Shape of Water? Yes, we do. It is confronting at times, and it is a film with sex scenes, nudity, and coarse language which could be deal-breakers for some people and I completely understand that. However, it is also a fascinating critique of Americana, and once you dive under the surface of the film, there is a whole lot for you to ruminate on and the last song will help you leave the cinemas with a spring in your step and a smile on your face. Though one thing, there is no way in hell that you can peel an egg that nice every time, you are creating high expectations Guillermo that can never be met in reality.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of The Shape of Water
Directed by – Guillermo del Toro
Story by – Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by – Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
Music by – Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography by – Dan Laustsen
Edited by – Sidney Wolinsky
Starring – Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lauren Lee Smith, Nick Searcy, David Hewlett & Morgan Kelly
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: 16; New Zealand: R16; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R