The Shape of Water
In a 1960s research facility, a mute janitor forms a relationship with an aquatic creature.
Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro
Over time, as I’ve added films to my list of completed reviews, it’s become apparent that a perfect 5-star rating is pretty hard to come by.
In over three years of taking in films and putting my thoughts down on paper (so to speak), here at Horror Freak News, I’ve offered up that perfect score to just over 10 films… out of 300 or so reviewed.
And with the highly-anticipated release of Guillermo del Toro’s new film, The Shape of Water – I’m at something of a crossroads… perhaps a crisis of conscience, if you will?
Will it receive that almighty 5-star rating, or will it fall just shy of such ultimate praise?
I can’t yet answer that question, so let’s discuss the finer details, and perhaps by article’s end, I’ll have a final determination.
Already nominated for several Golden Globes (7 to be exact), with a path which will no doubt lead to some serious Oscar consideration, The Shape of Water (which is seemingly inspired by everything from King Kong to E.T. The Extra-terrestrial) takes place in the early sixties, smack-dab in the middle of The Cold War. A mute woman named Elisa (Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins) has been working for 10 years as a cleaning lady at a top secret government facility. In her circle of friends are her next door neighbor Giles (Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins) and her doting co-worker Zelda (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer). When a brash and bullying security agent named Strickland (Oscar nominee Michael Shannon) arrives in the facility with “the asset”, an aquatic biped found in the jungles of South America (akin to The Creature of the Black Lagoon) played by del Toro regular Doug Jones – Elisa’s life will be forever turned upside down.
While there are some horror elements, plenty of fantasy pieces and even some post McCarthy-era spy subterfuge/intrigue, The Shape of Water is a tear-inducing love story.
And it’s a damn good one.
Every performer has the chance to shine in the film. The characters are rich and interesting, so the actors have plenty with which to play around. And every one of the actors is an honest-to-goodness pro. You’ve got a heaping helping of Oscar nominees, an Oscar winner and among all of this genius, the lovely work of Richard Jenkins (how I adore this actor’s work).
Sally Hawkins gives a unique and bold performance. Even with some of the extreme kookiness inherent in the character, you’ll immediately love Elisa. And as the character’s confidence grows throughout the film, you’ll find yourself internally saying, “you go, girl!”, especially in one particularly empowering sequence (mentioned below).
Michael Shannon is so deft at playing villainous roles (or any role for that matter), and his work as Strickland is no exception. You’ll love to hate him and all of the little idiosyncrasies in the character (the candy addiction) as well as glimpses into his home life, actually give the character a bit of humanity. Obviously, this is not his story, but I would have loved to know a bit more about why Strickland is the way he is.
Doug Jones does a remarkable job (as he always does) of fully realizing a character complete with deeply heartfelt emotions, despite his being contained behind intricate makeup and visual effects.
Alexandre Desplat has become such a welcome name to see in the opening credits of any piece. His scores for such films as The Queen, Argo and Philomena (not to mention his Oscar-winning work on The Grand Budapest Hotel) are always grand, lush and emotional. His beautiful and sweeping work is on display here as well.
What can I say? Every technical piece to the film is amazing. From the awesome creature effects, to the period set pieces, the lighting, the editing (notably in the tense “caper” scene halfway through the film), the excellent gore effects and the costume work. It’s a beautiful and detailed film to behold.
What I find so rare in many films – is the discovery of an exceptional and special moment. Something which I would consider almost hypnotic (I overuse the hell out of that word, but I’ve decided to just own it). And while most films might be lucky enough to give one of these “out of body” experiences to its audience, The Shape of Water has several which found me mesmerized.
Some of those notable moments, sans spoilers: The scene in the theatre below Elisa’s apartment, when she’s on a desperate search. The Strickland in Zelda’s home scene. The plugging of the bathroom sink and the subsequent moments. The scene in Strickland’s office involving some misunderstood sign language – and the fantastic look on Elisa’s face.
And the biggie which is perfectly set up by Giles and Elisa’s mutual love of musicals. And when the lighting changes and you realize what del Toro is about to do – your heart will begin to melt. I wish this sequence would have gone on longer… I so loved being there.
The symbolic use of the color green, the constant shots of water (in insane as well as everyday moments), the overriding theme of “the other” or “the outsider” and the easy-breezy foreshadowing of a physical mark on Elisa’s person… makes you want to close your eyes and let a smile overtake your face – allowing a pleasant and pleased hum to escape your lips.
For my avid readers of 4 (I’ve upgraded from 3), you’ll know how important such “hidden” details are to me. And in so many of these little touches, del Toro and his team truly pleased me.
And with all of that…
Here we are at the end of the article.
Even with these heaping helpings of deserved praise I’ve just showered on this potential awards darling – I can’t quite let it squeak by with a perfect score.
In my brain, the elusive 5-star rating has become something of a myth. Even if a film is nearly perfect (as is the case here) and even though I can’t really find any particular elements with which to take exception… If the film doesn’t quite make an immediate and potentially everlasting impact (let’s say the “it” factor) – then despite all of the grand and well-executed tricks of the trade – I can’t give up that perfect 5-star.
In the end… simply, it didn’t blow my mind. And that is the final, key bit which would pave the way to a perfect score. But let’s face it, a 4.5-star rating is still quite a feat.
It’ll take some time to determine exactly what it was that I find lacking… what was missing. But in light of my clear hesitation to crown this film completely victorious – I think I have my answer.
Even with my admittedly wishy-washy reservations (yet to be determined), I can’t recommend The Shape of Water enough. It’s magical. It’s heart-warming. The symbolism and beauty contained in every aspect of the film’s design is impeccable. Performances are (clearly) award-worthy across the board.
And for you total horror nerds, please make note of the fact that Strickland’s secretary Sally is played by none other than Wendy Lyon – whom you die-hards might remember in the lead role of 1987’s Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II. Seeing her name pass by in the closing credits (I didn’t recognize her on-screen during the film) put a happy little spring in my step.
The film is currently playing in select theatres, with a wider theatrical release on the way.