Movie Review: The Shape of Water
“The Shape of Water” is a broadly imaginative crowd-pleaser and the creative brainchild of writer-director Guillermo del Toro.
While growing up, del Toro’s favorite childhood movie was the 1954 sci-fi classic, Creature from the Black Lagoon. This film takes a simple idea — the discovery and apprehension of a bestial swamp monster — then crafts an captivating struggle between the forces of good and evil. It’s a clever, though anxious love story tale brought to fruition by credible performances throughout, enhanced by moody cinematography depicting the acute paranoia of those who lived during the Cold War, and complemented by a mesmerizing musical soundtrack conveying a beacon of hope amidst a suffocating canopy of darkness and despair.
Borrowing from themes we seen in vintage movies before, from King Kong (1933) to ET: The Extraterrestrial (1982), a sympathetic loner makes a most unlikely emotional and physical connection to an alien life form. An unbreakable bond forms. Unified, and aided by other downtrodden accomplices, they stand up to evil and battle to overcome what appears to be insurmountable odds.
Sally Hawkins plays a working-class orphan and mute, the victim of an abusive past with an even more depressing present. She works dutifully but joyously on the night shift as a cleaning lady deep inside the murky bowels of a secret government laboratory. Her life consists of mopping floors, cleaning toilets, and riding the bus back and forth to work each night. Worse, it’s 1961 during the height of the Cold War. If that’s not distressing enough, she lives in Baltimore.
Trapped in a gloomy existence over which she has little control and utterly starved for love and affection, Hawkins makes an accidental discovery. She finds the swamp creature padlocked in government captivity. She learns he has feelings and expresses emotions. The creature is also empowered with a unique supernatural gift, which won’t be revealed here. However, no one knows this yet. The swamp man is cruelly chained like a beast inside a filthy water tank in the stank basement of the facility. He faces torture and near-certain death. Witnessing how the poor creature is so grossly mistreated, Hawkins starts to sympathize with the captive lizard-prisoner and ultimately becomes his unlikely hero and savior.
Monster movies might typically make for juvenile amusement and good old fashioned family entertainment. However, make no mistakes about this film. This isn’t a children’s movie. It’s peppered with violence and vulgarity, though never gratuitous.
The film’s allure stems from the way many of the scenes are shot and edited. It ignites stark sensory contrasts between sight and sound, i.e. what we see versus what we hear. Entirely by careful design, del Toro cleverly mismatches the industrial backdrop of cold steel and bleak concrete shadowed beneath dimly lit lights against a joyous musical accompaniment which seems so ridiculously inappropriate and absurdly out of place that it absolutely its perfectly. There are 28 songs in all interspersed into this monster tale, yet none of the music comes from the pop jukebox. If the musical soundtrack were to be played apart from the scenery, very little of it would be familiar. However, given the emotionally impoverished impersonal confines, each note and every voice becomes downright uplifting. This seeming contradiction is brilliant. It’s a visual and auditory sensation to be experienced. I consider this the hallmark of the film.
Aside from Hawkins as a mute somehow managing to convey an extensive range of emotions with no words, only facial expressions and gestures [reminiscent of Marlee Matlin’s Academy Award-winning role in Children of a Lesser God (1986)], her supporting cast is equally compelling. By underplaying the subtle role of a repressed gay man living during a time and in a place where such things were considered scandalous and even dangerous, Richard Jenkins (so outstanding in 2007’s grossly underappreciated The Visitor) steals virtually every scene he’s in. Stuck in his cramped apartment as Hawkins next-door-neighbor, Jenkins becomes her unlikely accomplice and co-conspirator thanks to the mobility he provides and greater inspiration as a mentor. Jenkins takes refuge in painting and a steady diet of classic movies on a black and white television, which provides an constructive replacement for acute frustration. Like Hawkins, both starve for affection.
Also of note are Octavia Spencer, who’s typecast in the typical role of a Black cleaning lady. Spencer’s previous work is magnificent, but this performance seems like just another resuscitation. Michael Shannon plays the villain. He’s become one of the big screen’s most despicable bad guys. Shannon goes way over the top here, playing a bigoted asshole who we all want to see die a painful death. Shannon is almost cartoonish in his depiction of the head of the government research facility. Some might think his hammy performance was essential to draw clear distinctions between the forces at odds. However, I thought Shannon went just a bit too far and tarnishes what otherwise could have been a more plausible story.
The cartoonish characterization doesn’t end with the sadistic bad guy. Without giving away too much of the plot, this Cold War fairy tale pits East versus West in the ultimate battle of survival to discover the secret powers hidden within the water tank possessed by the swamp man. Both sides want kill the creature and conduct an autopsy that might reveal how mankind might breath underwater and human tissue might be healed. Predictably, the Soviets are portrayed as ideologically-driven cyborgs. Sorry, but Soviet spies weren’t spending their free time chain-smoking Belomorkanals while quoting Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin. Please leave that inglorious responsibility to Walter Sobchak. (Trying to make a joke here. If that bombed, then click HERE)
Another minor criticism rises during the rescue attempt. Mimicking the faux-suspense of horror movies that make audiences want to shout at the screen, “DON’T OPEN THAT CLOSET DOOR!” the heroes sure could use a triple dose of common sense. GET YOUR ASSES IN GEAR! MOVE THE SWAMP MAN! FAST! I wanted to yell that at the screen, but civilized decorum prevailed. Later as we were leaving the theater, I asked Marieta what she was thinking during the sequence of scenes and she pretty much summed it up in the following words: GET YOUR ASSES IN GEAR! MOVE THE SWAMP MAN! FAST! Hence, my annoyance wasn’t solitary.
I expect The Shape of Water will receive several Oscar nominations which will be well-deserved. This list of honorary accolades should include del Toro (for Best Director), Hawkins (f0r Best Actor in a Female Role), Jenkins (for Best Supporting Actor), the category of Best Musical Score, and the movie itself for Best Picture.
While regurgitating an old and familiar tale we’ve seen and enjoyed many times before, this movie elevated previous renditions into a creative marvel. Despite some imperfections, I still rank it as one of the top-ten films of the year.
The Shape of Water gets a rating of 8.5 out of 10.