This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Genre: Fantasy, Romance
Del Toro’s latest drowns the viewer in immediate, romantic wonderment with its opening images: a small Baltimore apartment submerged in ocean water, furnishings hovering where they would be on solid ground. It’s serene chaos, a scene of utter destruction rendered tranquil by the placidity of Alexandre Desplat’s affectionate, curious score. It is utter perfection, a signifier of THE SHAPE OF WATER’s flawless synchronicity of del Toro’s passion for cinema and his ability as a craftsman of it.
Taking place in rainy Baltimore during the height of the Cold War, a government facility’s musical-loving cleaning staff member, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), is entranced by a recently captured aquatic creature. A mutual admiration cultivates and, when higher-ups reveal sinister plans for the beast, Elisa turns to drastic means to save the one love that mattered most to her. THE SHAPE OF WATER is the romantic-thriller-merman musical of the year! Finally, a Guillermo del Toro film as thoroughly bizarre as his own personality. While still as fanciful as his other fairy-tale works, there’s a “gee-whiz,” do-good Americana earnestness that flavors the entire film—every actor’s performance is jumping off a hand-painted Coca Cola advertisement and it is so very charming. It’s a mood that acts as the primary saving grace for del Toro’s historically straight-forward dialogue . . . Let’s just say that when I heard the main character of THE SHAPE OF WATER was a mute, I was 10 times more excited for this film than I ever had been.
Look, I’ll say it: there’s zero chance he smells good
What helps is the pitch-perfect casting, employing actors who let, at times, stale characters shine, particularly Richard Jenkins, who brings a beautiful, palpable loneliness to his performance. His hackneyed arc is elevated to soaringly emotional heights. Hawkins puts on her very best Lillian Gish and Doug Jones continues his reign as King of the Monsters. However, for being modeled after the Universal monster movies and golden age musicals, the film’s bawdy approach to its sexuality is disappointing. Michael Shannon, clean-shaven but delivering a performance deliciously evil enough to twirl 18 mustaches, once labels one of his fingers a “pussy-fucking” finger. One of the first scenes is the beginning of a crude running gag involving masturbation. The suggestive wit of yesteryears is abandoned for more forward and raunchy exchanges; the kink rarely works well, often airing the lechery of Harry Knowles’s infamous BLADE 2 review.
The next perfect cosplay couples costume for the 40-something crowd
On a technical level, the way in which the film is paced to its music and sound cues is stellar: it may very well be the better BABY DRIVER. The editing is fun—there’s a cross-cutting sequence wherein Elisa balances on an unstable metal container and, just as she moves her foot across it, the film cuts to Shannon’s Strickland dragging a baton off a metal surface. It’s a tense, one-second fake-out, but also a magnificent match-cut. The film is chock-full of those; if there was ever a time where del Toro felt to flaunt every one of his tricks and most treasured gross-outs (Strickland’s re-attached, sewn-on fingers are the source of some of my new all-time favorite movie moments), it’s here. This is an auteur praying at the altar of the studio pictures that made him whole and convinced him of magic. In both THE SHAPE OF WATER’s America, and our globe, film is the ultimate tool of civility—the reflection of ourselves through simulated projections of others teaches us to best empathize with those around us.
We see ourselves . . . Through the glass . . . Huh, huh, get it?
2017 in film has largely been concerned with revisiting the past, frequently in formalistic exercises, to reckon with our present. While one would expect the results to be widely cynical, the year has been tinged with hope in a hopeless climate; THE SHAPE OF WATER may very well take the cake for most exuberantly and successfully optimistic of the bunch. It is the tale of outsiders brought together to save the ultimate exile and, in the domestic space race of conservatives or progressives guiding America’s narrative, perhaps fate will let goodwill prosper. Does it feel weird when del Toro equates Richard Jenkins’s rejection from the dashing waiter at the local diner as a love as monstrous as Sally Hawkins’s with the merman? Absolutely, but it becomes clear that he’s utilizing the period-appropriate perceptions of America’s mid-20th century taboos: these feelings are said to be abnormal by the majority and so they are approached and visualized as so. By normalizing mermen, really, nothing is odd: love is love! Look, if it still sounds ethically murky, it’s because it is, but the film’s heart of gold keeps the material perched on a patently virtuous high-ground. Apathy is as inhumane as harm, love *is* love.
CYNICS, BE GONE
My major gripe with del Toro’s films is how often the passion injected into the concept grossly outweighs the execution. While CRIMSON PEAK’s success may have been thwarted by mis-marketing and a colossal budget that strong-armed a gothic drama into a haunted house movie, the film’s heart is about as lively as its ghosts’. There was something just not right with the original recipe. THE SHAPE OF WATER is the ultimate rebound. Here, conviction and realization meet eye-to-eye, waltzing in the starlight. It is Del Toro’s ultimate mission statement as a cineaste and the director’s finest work to date.