Movie Review: The Shape of Water (2017)

TitleThe Shape of Water
Release Date: December 1, 2017
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Production Company: TSG Entertainment | Double Dare You Productions

Set in Baltimore in 1962 during the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water centers on Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who lives in an apartment above a derelict movie palace and works as a cleaner at a government research facility.  Her only friends are her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a struggling commercial illustrator who shies away from conflict, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a co-worker who helps interpret for Elisa.

An Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) captured in the Amazon by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is brought into the facility for research.  Strickland is cruel to the creature and the facility’s staff alike.  Elisa befriends the Amphibian Man and when she learns that Strickland plans to vivisect him, organizes a rescue with Giles and Zelda, and are aided by a Soviet spy acting under the name Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who also feels sympathetic toward Amphibian Man.

The story is a romance where the creatures considered “unsightly” – both Amphibian Man and Elisa – get their day (and yes, they totally have sex).  It also twists things around from classic horror films in that both Amphibian Man and a Soviet spy be heroic, while the American soldier is the villain.  More subtly the film plays upon racial prejudice and the Civil Rights movement occurring at the time, and discrimination against LGBT people through Giles.  Sally Hawkins performs terrifically and carries the film despite not speaking.

The movie feels very familiar.  It is, of course, a variation of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, and del Toro very directly based the Amphibian Man on The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  But like Stranger Things, it also draws a lot on 80s movies, particularly the many movies in which a unhuman character must escape a hostile government and forms a close bond with the protagonist (E.T., Starman, Splash, et al).  The mood and atmosphere of the movie sets owes a lot to Jeunet/Caro films like Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, and even lifts the idea of filling a bathroom with water by stuffing towels under the door and letting the faucet run.  There are similarities too with Dancer in the Dark in that the protagonist is working class with a disability and daydreams about movie musicals.  The closest similarity is to del Toro’s own work, Pan’s Labyrinth, each of which features a female protagonist engaging with fantasy elements set against the brutal reality of a historical setting (the Spanish Civil War and the Cold War, respectively).

I cite all these similarities not to say that del Toro is “ripping off” other movies, but that he is drawing on many influences and synthesizing them into a new creative endeavor.  For all it’s familiarity, The Shape of Water is a wonder to watch.

Rating: ***1/2

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