By Brian Harris, Staff Writer
The Shape of Water is easily one of the best films of the year, complete with dazzling visuals, a stellar score and breathtaking performances across the board. It’s also a movie about a 1960s woman falling head over heels for what can best be described as a fish monster.
Now, I assume that premise will unfortunately kill a lot of interest in the general movie going public, which is a shame, considering all the things this one gets so, so right.
Let’s start with that premise, the veritable elephant (or fish monster) in the room. If one can get past the roadblocks for Beauty and the Beast, it shouldn’t be too hard to grab on here.
Taking place in the 60s, the film follows actress Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor in what is essentially a monster movie variant of Area 51.
Soon, Elisa begins to develop feelings towards the facility’s newest specimen, a creature known only as The Asset played by frequent Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones.
And it’s through that incredibly simplistic plot that Del Toro massages out some serious complexity into his fictional love story.
Like Del Toro’s 2006 cult hit Pan’s Labyrinth (also featuring Doug Jones in a monster costume), the film blends the magical insanity of its premise with the very real worlds they inhabit.
For as much as this is a special effects love story, the film is almost more interested in commenting on 60s America and the changing of the times in both surprising and effective ways.
It’s almost shocking how many different messages Del Toro can cram into the film, while not diluting the power of each and every revelation. Which may have something to do with the performances at play here.
From the get go, Sally Hawkins gives an incredible performance as Elisa; it takes a lot of talent to properly convey a character who has zero lines of spoken dialogue for an entire film, communicating through ASL and gestures. Hawkins does it so perfectly you’d think she was a mute.
She captures the beauty of the romance, the pain of her isolation, and her naive innocence with every movement her character makes.
The same praise could be given to almost all the cast, with Doug Jones’ The Asset also unable to speak, he too relies on his expressions and body language through a bulky monster’s appearance, with fantastic heartfelt results.
Special attention should be given to Richard Jenkin’s in turn as Elisa’s next-door neighbor and best friend which is so adorably quirky and a real heart beat for the film.
While Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland is a delightful villain role for the ex-General Zod.
We should also mention the visuals. Del Toro has always been one to create paintings with his frames, but he’s really outdone himself here.
It seems as if every scene was designed to evoke the feel of 50s and 60s in Hollywood. With bright pastel colors that give the film a distinct retro vibe.
Also, of note is the score, seemingly birthed from that same retro aesthetic, it sounds like a slightly twisted version of a 50s era film score.
It gives the movie an incredibly distinct vibe that it absolutely benefits from.
Now, this is not a perfect movie, with the biggest flaw coming in the form of pacing.
In any good romance, you want to see it develop and blossom throughout the runtime. Here it starts and stops almost abruptly to make room for the multiple subplots throughout the film.
In Del Toro’s defense, fitting in multiple angles of social commentary was bound to take some time away from the characters, but it feels noticeable in a rushed first act.
There’s also a subplot involving the fantastic Michael Stuhlbarg as a scientist that feels almost entirely unnecessary, again adding to a feeling of bloat in the wrong places throughout the film.
Is it a film for everyone? Probably not, its odd, quirky, and strangely violent at times. But if you can stomach its weirdness, there’s a gem of a movie here, and it’s one that shouldn’t be missed.