Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
The true beauty of cinema is in what it has not yet revealed. By that I mean it is an endless blank canvas on which brilliant artists can paint their untold masterpieces. Of course, there is always the flip side of that as well. As the year comes to a close, most attention will be paid to “best of the year” type lists. There are also “worst of the year” lists. But in a medium where there is so much content produced each year, I find it more enjoyable, and more meditative to focus instead on the best of the year, on the true potential of what movie making can be, the thrilling and truly moving experiences that await us in the theater when we see a great movie. Guillermo del Toro once again shows why his voice is so unique, powerful and expressive with one of the best of the year in The Shape of Water.
To attempt a plot description of this film would be a senior thesis all its own it would seem, as del Toro is able to cram everything under the sun into this narrative, but here is my attempt at least to level set expectations when entering the theater to take in this masterful work. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute living above a failing movie theater in 1960s Baltimore, living next to Giles (Richard Jenkins), a single, middle-aged man struggling to hold a job for reasons unsaid (but understood). She works at a government facility as a janitor alongside Zelda (Octavia Spencer). When a strange creature is brought into the facility to be studied, Elisa makes a special bond with it. This special creature is treated as a piece of meat to be studied by the lab boss Strickland (Michael Shannon), but is also beloved by a secret Russian spy/scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Their bond is unbreakable, but are the amphibian man’s chains?
This is not your typical movie. This is not your straightforward love story, spy story, drama story, whatever story. It’s in a category all its own, which is what makes the experience of it so thrilling, so fascinating. This movie is unclassified. It is “other”. It’s charm comes through in its uniqueness, but also in its care for its characters, its humanity, and its heart. To think up a scenario like this one, and be able to pull it off with charm, whimsy, intensity, etc. is a truly remarkable feat, and marks The Shape of Water as one of the more unique and impressive films I’ve ever seen, which sounds like exaggeration, but this is a truly remarkable film, one which I am clearly struggling to communicate.
There is not a single weak element in this film, from top to bottom. The performances are universally great, starting and ending with Sally Hawkins in the lead role. Her mute performance allows her to emote with her movements and eyes, making for a special character and performance. Richard Jenkins, whose side character gets developed more than most supporting roles often do, is equally impressive. The technical aspects, from the beautiful 1960s art direction, to the peerless editing, to the fun, whimsical score/soundtrack which hearkens to a Parisian jaunt (think Amelie), the cinematography, everything clicks like a symphonic performance. But the real crown jewel of this film is the vision and execution by writer/director Guillermo del Toro. The screenplay, co-written by Vanessa Taylor, covers all manner of emotion and genre, and del Toro’s direction delivers beautifully on this premise.
There are touching, human moments between characters, social awareness throughout dealing with humanity and basic rights, there is a thrilling heist, plenty of funny lines, and even a musical number! Literally, this movie has it all, but the wonder of it all is that everything comes to pass, and yet the film is not a mess. It is anything but. It is a modern marvel in filmmaking. If it sounds like I am gushing over this movie, it’s because I am! It may not be for everyone, given the strangeness at the surface of the narrative, but del Toro packs it full of marvelous moments and tremendously important heft and humanity. You won’t see another movie like it this year, and yet you can see every sort of movie within it. There is nothing quite as marvelous as when a film is able to completely sweep you off your feet, thrill you, touch you, and bring you on a truly special cinematic journey that has you smiling, crying, laughing, and holding on to the edge of your seat, all within the same movie. Bravo Guillermo del Toro! Bravo!