The Shape of Water written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, directed by Guillermo del Toro (Fox Searchlight Pictures, Bull Productions, Double Dare You, R, 123 min)
Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg.
A Brilliant and Brackish Mélange
The cascading arpeggiated melody, on an accordion sets the stage for a magical film to come. Slippery, the melody meanders like a tributary to a bigger concept to come.
As this melody pushed me into Guillermo del Toro’s world of The Shape of Water, I kept feeling like I was viewing a spiritual descendant of Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, despite no thematic similarities in the surface.
Much like Tim Burton before him, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water interweaves realism with imagination, producing a brilliant and brackish mélange.
The central narrative of The Shape of Water focuses on Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a janitor at a top-secret, government-funded research facility. Mute, Elisa goes through the quotidian motions of the day with her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), as company at home, and her fellow custodian, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) at work.
In both relationships, her friends fill the spaces with empty jabber and Elisa is more than happy to lend a listening ear.
And then, her life changes when Agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) imports a mermaid-like creature for testing. Clearly a threat for violence, Strickland loses a few fingers trying to harness this fish man.
And yet, Elisa feels a spiritual connection with this creature. She believes him to be misunderstood, an outcast like herself longing for a deeper than surface connection.
And here, a budding romance in secret begins, as Elisa sneaks away to teach the fish sign language and to feed him eggs.
Soon, the dream-like fantasy shatters when the Russian undercover research scientist, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) discovers the plot to kill the creature and dissect it. Knowing the connection the creature has with Elisa, Hoffstetler decides to help the creature and Elisa escape.
Here, the future of this love story hangs in the balance.
The Magical Realism of The Shape of Water
In every detail, del Toro frames The Shape of Water in magical realism. Not only do the arpeggiated melodies feel like water sluicing through your hands, but also the set design and color palette conjure water. Guillermo del Toro packs each shot with every hue of green and the tightly compacted sets feel submerged as if in a fish tank.
Taken together, The Shape of Water emits feeling more than it argues a specific point. Some might focus on the connection between Elisa and the creature—how they are both outsiders and, thus, the film is about creating space for outsiders. And sure, that reading is valid. But to me, The Shape of Water is best viewed as an emotional experience, much like Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. In both movies, it isn’t as much about what the characters say or do as it is the juxtaposition between characters and the allegorical worlds in which they live.
The Shape of Water refines del Toro’s monster oeuvre, further reshaping what a monster film can be and what it, dare I say, should be.
Verdict: 5 out of 5