By Rob Vaux
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Jenkins
Written by: Guillermo del Toro (screenplay by), Vanessa Taylor (screenplay by) |
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
It’s not surprising that Guillermo del Toro has announced some time off. To quote a sage of our age, Hollywood is a hideous bitch goddess, and to linger too long amid her slimy tendrils is to risk the destruction of the soul. Del Toro, one of our most imaginative and exciting directors, has felt her sting more than once, and since Pan’s Labyrinth has frankly struggled to recapture the magic of his best work. How fortunate, then, before he pauses, that he leaves us with something as marvelous as The Shape of Water to keep us warm.
The basic nature of the film – a beauty-and-the-beast style romance between a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) and a fish-man kept in a tank (Doug Jones) – should come as no surprise for the director’s long-time fans. It contains many of his favorite notions such as human monsters, the fragility of innocence, and misunderstood outsiders with beautiful souls. He finds haunting perfection in a story we thought we’d knew, and hits us with overwhelming emotional power using nothing more than subtle cues and light touches. This movie is a textbook case of doing more with less, and it stays with you for days after the screening ends. This is del Toro at his very best: the reason we all got so excited by him in the first place and a powerful affirmation that he still has a lot of magic to show us.
And yet despite affirming what we already knew about the director, it still finds ways to surprise us: not only in the specific of the story, but in the way he presents it to us. It’s ostensibly set in Baltimore in the early 1960s, but maintains that air of “once upon a time in the land of faraway” at all times. Hawkins’ Elisa lives above a movie theater next to a struggling artist (Richard Jenkins) who serves as one of her only friends. She works in an unspecified government lab – the kind with key cards and stern MPs at the gate – with a fellow cleaning woman (Octavia Spencer, crushing it at always) who talks her ear off and loves her for it.
Then one evening, a severe-looking man (Michael Shannon, who had his I Murder Fun suit pressed just for the occasion) shows up with a strange water tank, and we’re off to the races. Jones’s creature ends up chained in a lab, literally jabbed with a cattle prod every few hours and eyeing Shannon’s hateful jailer with the cold look of murder. Through a combination of happenstance and guile, she gets into the lab to see the gill-man… and from there, the connection of two souls takes its course.
Del Toro mines a lot of drama out of the simple fact that stories like this can end happily, tragically or somewhere in between, and still be perfectly, uniquely fitting. He’s on firm ground with the story, and pulls enough twists and turns out of it to keep us guessing. (Potential escape, for example, is only one step on the journey, instead of the climax one might expect from a lesser film.) Shannon’s marvelously hateful villain carries a surprising amount of depth to his awfulness, and Jones sympathetic prisoner shows flashes of Darwinian savagery to remind us he may not be quite as gentle as he seems.
It goes down smooth as silk, with gorgeous emotional beats and the kind of wistful sadness that helped make Pan’s Labyrinth so brilliant. But what really sets it apart – the element that turns the film into something extraordinary – it how Del Toro’s enormous film fandom creeps in around the edges. The movie theater over which Elisa lives plays a surprisingly large role in the proceedings, and the film’s soundtrack (culled largely from musicals of the era) feels strangely brilliant. Since it’s a fantasy, Del Toro allows us to slip into Elisa’s head more than once, resulting in it some of the weirdest dance numbers you’ve ever seen.
To that, he marries the film’s most obvious inspiration: The Creature from the Black Lagoon. This could almost be a sequel to the Universal classic, and he affection for it clearly knows no bounds. But wrapping that up in the trappings of an Astaire-Rogers musical of all things takes a special kind of genius. Step off the path once, make one little mistake, and the whole thing would collapse into a pile of oddball pretension. Del Toro is too dedicated to waver, however, and without the kind of studio meddling that dogged his last few efforts, he has the freedom to mix this cocktail without a hitch.
That makes The Shape of Water not just one of the best films of the year, but a beautiful reminder of what great filmmakers can do with material they love. You’ve seen so much of this movie in other films that came before it, and yet none of it feels stale or dated. Indeed, the creativity on display has few peers and if Del Toro is indeed going to step away for a time, there’s no better effort to leave us with. Enjoy the break, Guillermo. No one’s going to look at this gem and say you didn’t earn it.
Rob Vaux has worked as a professional film critic since 2000: writing for such sites as Collider, Mania.com, Flipside Movies and the Sci-Fi Movie Page. He also runs a blog, www.cinema-stache.com, covering musings and notions on the world of film. He lives in sunny Southern California with his wife and a whirling menagerie of animals.