The Shape of Water
A pleasant mishmash of classic horror movies, silent films, musicals and Cold War thrillers, Benecio— excuse me —Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water confidently balances the humor, tension, melancholy and heart that the above genre blend suggests.
Set in an early ‘60s Baltimore fleshed out with convincing period design, the film opens with a beautiful character introduction of mute cleaning lady Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a woman of immense quiet yearning who lives above a movie theater and works at a nearby government laboratory.
Interactions with lonely neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an out-of-work illustrator with his share of demons, and protective co-worker friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) convey Elisa’s soulful kindness, but she begins to bloom when scientists bring an aquatic, manlike creature from South America to the lab for testing.
Seemingly on the same family tree as the titular entity of Creature from the Black Lagoon, the visitor is a wonder of makeup and character design. Under the copious scales, gills and fins, Doug Jones essentially plays a hunkier, less chatty version of his Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movies and makes a strong argument for old school, practical effects over motion-capture.
Momentarily hampering The Shape of Water, however, is the suddenness with which Elisa takes to the creature and her willingness to put herself in the proximity of a firmly established danger. Without a scene of her pining for the newcomer or otherwise thinking of him or checking on him in innocent ways, their connection comes off as assumed — or, at best, lazily destined — instead of the believable one that gradually and charmingly occurs.
With sadistic security figure Strickland (Michael Shannon) treating the perceived abomination with hostility and kindly Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) pursuing his own interests, Elisa plots to free her new acquaintance from the lab. In turn, the creature beautifully showcases some of his hidden talents and inspires his allies to look beyond their despair and perceived flaws.
Made for a reported $19 million, cast-wide strong performances and the filmmakers’ concerted efforts give The Shape of Water the appearance of costing several times more than that amount. Aiding the effort is the intricate sets’ uses of pistachio green and brighter hues of that color, which Giles’ former boss posits is a sign of the future, and del Toro’s textbook fluid camerawork.
Alluring as the color palette is, the director originally wanted The Shape of Water to be entirely in black and white, and while Fox balked at the idea, he manages to get one heartfelt sequence in that mode near the end.
Elevating an already good film close to greatness, the scene and its surrounding balanced parts make a convincing argument for one of the year’s best films. Though it may not speak to any grand national, global or social issue like The Post or Get Out, as intelligent escapism and a reminder of humanity’s potential, it’s tough to beat.
Grade: A-minus. Rated R. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark and the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photo: Fox Searchlight)