Guillermo Del Toro is a visionary. Take a look at any of his films, and there’s an undeniable characteristic uniting each of them. Del Toro has a visual style unlike any other director, which partners well with the fact that he’s a straight up freak. He tells unabashedly strange tales featuring grotesque, albeit beautiful, creatures at the center. He loves his monsters, and he’s done more for the monster movie than any other modern director. His passion and unique vision now carry into The Shape of Water. It’s a beautiful, well crafted story, no doubt about it. But will you like it? I have no fucking clue.
Like I stated above, Del Toro is a master filmmaker. Watching this film, it’s so clear that this is a very personal story for him, and he’s crafted each frame with precision and care. The story is set in a nondescript costal city during the sixties, which provides a wonderful setting for fantastic production design. Our main character lives in a quirky apartment above a movie theater. The streets are lined with old cars and bright neon lights. The government facility that houses our aquatic monster is as pulpy and Cold-War-nostalgic as you could imagine. You could watch this film on mute and still appreciate the gorgeous visuals Del Toro puts to screen.
In fact, The Shape of Water might be one of the most fitting films to watch silent. Not only is our protagonist a mute character (more on that later), but it’s not necessary to hear the dialogue to understand the movie. This isn’t a slam on the actors, rather a testament to them. This film is so much less about the intricacies of plot details, and more the emotional journey our characters are on. The performances, the costuming, the production design is all centered around where our characters stand on their emotional arc. You’ve probably head the old saying “show, don’t tell,” but you’ve never seen it done quite like this.
Someone who goes her entire role showing, not telling, is Sally Hawkins. Her entire performance is silent, and yet she’s captivating every moment she’s on screen. It’s genuinely amazing that she is able to create such a fully formed, complex character, without speaking a single word. From just the opening sequence outlining her morning routine, you already know everything you need to know about her. There’s a reason she’s among the Oscar conversation this year, and she’s absolutely deserving of such recognition.
Sally Hawkins isn’t alone though, as she’s surrounded by a delightful supporting cast of equally colorful characters. Michael Stuhlbarg is expectedly great, as he’s been in everything this year. Michael Shannon plays one of the most menacing villains of the year, giving a spectacular performance that leaves a chill well after you’ve left the theater. Octavia Spencer plays Sally Hawkins’ peppy co-worker, one who isn’t relegated to “sassy black friend,” but rather breathes life into what could have been a bland cliche. Richard Jenkins, though at first seemingly over the top, settles into the quirks and mannerisms of his character the way only a seasoned vet can.
However, if there’s one standout from the supporting cast, it’s Doug Jones as the nameless fish-man. Without a single line of dialogue, this long time GDT collaborator creates a shockingly human character, one that makes you believe this creature could really exists, while never letting you forget the performer underneath the makeup. Even though at times theres a similarity to Hellboy’s Abe Sapien, as the story progresses, you see a beautiful personality take shape.
What I find so special about the characters and performances of this cast, is how Del Toro celebrates the freaks and the outcasts. Our protagonists are: a deaf woman, a black woman (during the civil rights union), a Soviet (during the cold war), a gay man (during the sixties), and a literal monster. Each of our protagonists are disenfranchised by society for one reason or another, yet Del Toro has such a clear love for these characters. In contrast, Michael Shannons villain is a white, Christian man, with a wife, two kids, and drives a Cadillac. He’s the archetypal man’s man of the sixties, and yet he’s filled with disgusting and dreadful traits that show the American Dream might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
I have only one issue with The Shape of Water: it’s piss poor editing. Editing isn’t often something you can see, the goal of an editor is to be completely invisible. Yet, with this film, I noticed almost every cut. This is due to a lack of something called Shot Continuity. Shot continuity is the basic concept that if something happens in one shot, it will continue into the next shot. If James Bond throws a punch with his left hand in a wide shot, but in the close-up it’s with his right, you’ll notice something changed in between takes. With The Shape of Water, there’s hardly any shot continuity, and it’s became more and more grating as the film went on.
Editing aside, I found this film to be a beautiful story that uses the language of cinema to a masterful effect. However, I’m just one person, your opinion will likely be very different. I’ll just call a spade a spade here: there’s a scene where a mute woman has sex with a fish man, you might not like this movie. I’m not sure if I like this movie. But I admire it. I respect it. Sometimes I watch a movie, and can immediately think of someone I want to recommend it to. Not with The Shape of Water, I can’t think of a single person I would recommend this film to, but I’ll certainly be talking about it for a long time to come.
Rating: 4.6 — Phenomenal