The Shape of Water (2017): Del Toro’s Return to Form (Review)

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Guillermo del Toro returns to form with The Shape of Water. This 2017 offering, co-written by del Toro with Vanessa Taylor, stars Sally Hawkins as the mute girl who befriends the creature. Michael Shannon is the villain, Richard Jenkins; the reluctant accomplice and Octavia Spencer the plucky sidekick. Doug Jones plays the South American amphibious creature/god.

The theme of this film is water, naturally, as both the environment for the underwater dweller worshipped by the locals as some sort of god and as the background for most of the events of the film. The creature bears more than a little resemblance to “monster” in  The Creature of the Black Lagoon but unlike good old Roscoe Browning’s creature, this one has no zipper running up its back.

Jones’ creature looks real and, even more importantly, plausible. Hawkins is the isolated cleaning woman trapped in a 1960’s world of racism, class structure and a world run by men for men. Women are second class citizens and one who has a speech impediment is on the very bottom of the totem pole.

Del Toro gives us a heroine that we fall immediately in love with. A woman whose existence is full of routine but who has the soul of a dancer, a singer and a romantic.  Although part of her daily preparations for work include industriously masturbating in a tub of water, deep down, Elisa Esposito has enough imagination to fill in many blanks in her life.

Jenkins is Giles, her next door neighbor. He is a closeted gay, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, an artist and he is desperately trying to make ends meet and fall in love. Spencer is Zelda, the co-worker who looks out for her mute friend, and translates when required.

Michael Shannon is Strickland; the man who captured the creature and transported it to the scientific facility where it will be studied. Strickland is also, somewhat ironically, a very cold fish. He is humorless, vicious and utterly, it seems, without feeling.

Del Toro’s film asks what would have happened if the creature of the Black Lagoon had been captured at a time when the Russian’s were winning the space race and the Cold War was running full steam ahead. (Michael Stuhlbarg plays a crucial part as a scientist who is not all he seems.)

With The Shape if Water del Toro returns to his roots. The film has all the dark and terrible beauty of Pan’s Labyrinth and the whimsy of The Devil’s Backbone. We fall for the story and all its characters hook, line and sinker. The creature is not terrifying at all, we feel as much empathy as curiosity and Elisa’a inexplicable yearning and interest in the thing is not mystifying at all.

Doug Jones has given us a performance full of nuances, emotions and a certain depth that has never been seen before in a “creature feature.”

The film is classed as an adventure, fantasy, drama and it is indeed all three. It can also be seen as a romance as well as a heart pounding thriller. There are scenes that keep the viewer on the edge of their seat;  breath held as they silently urge the heroes on and others that fill the heart with warmth.

The Shape if Water has sets that are reminiscent of the underwater city in Bioshock and water does feature in practically every scene. Del Toro makes old films an important part of the story and the cast is perfect. Shannon gives us a man we love to hate and when the climax of the film arrives we are satisfied with his fate.

If there is any complaint at all about this marvelous feature it would be that the scars on Elisa’s neck are obvious from the first time we see them and we know that they will provide some sort of plot twist.

This is a full 5 star film that delivers across the board. The story, sets, costumes and performances all come together in a dark bit of art that touches the viewer’s heart. Catch this one when it comes out in the cinema (December 8) and get caught up in Guillermo del Toro’s return to form.

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Author: Michael Knox-Smith

World traveler, writer, actor, journalist. Cinephile who reviews films, television, books and interviews professionals in the industry. Member Nevada Film Critics Society

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