THE SHAPE OF WATER review by Mark Walters – Guillermo del Toro delivers a gothic fairy tale

THE SHAPE OF WATER review by Mark Walters – Guillermo del Toro delivers a gothic fairy tale

Sometimes a film comes along that feels in many ways familiar, while delivering something unique and really special, and THE SHAPE OF WATER definitely fits into that category. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, this is a movie that evokes classic monster movie sensibilities, but mixes in an unlikely romantic subplot. In all honesty it probably shouldn’t work, but somehow it does, and it may just be one of the director’s very best films to boot.

In the early 1960s, in the height of the Cold War, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely mute woman working as part of a cleaning crew inside a government facility. Her work friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) protects her and gives her advice when they’re on the clock, while back home her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) enjoys her visits… even though he does all the talking. Elisa’s daily routine is shaken up a bit when a new head of security named Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) appears at work, bringing with him a strange Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) being kept chained up. Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) seems fascinated by the creature, while Strickland is more content using a cattle prod to keep it in line. Elisa finds herself forming an unlikely friendship with the Amphibian Man, and soon realizes she can’t sit by and let this new friend be experimented on any further. Now the mousy girl who can’t even speak must find the courage to do what no one else will, though she’s not the only one with a hidden agenda.

In a year filled with strong acting prowess on display, this film is no slouch, thanks largely to the challenging performance by Sally Hawkins in which she must use sign language, along with her body and facial expressions to sell her quirky character. It’s a masterful effort, and shows why she is an actress that consistently manages to wow audiences and completely lose herself in a role. There are moments here where she blew me away, especially in a scene where she’s trying to convince her neighbor why they must do something incredibly dangerous and difficult, while using sign language to convey the importance of her feelings… it’s tear-inducing, in the best possible way. Richard Jenkins is heartwarming as Giles, the closeted gay man living in a time where being gay wasn’t in any way acceptable, and it’s affected his work, his life, and distracted him while time made him an old man. The character is all of us, realizing the pain of regret and the reality of life hitting us hard at times. His chemistry with Hawkins is sublime, and he’s one of the most sympathetic and honest characters to grace the big screen this year. Michael Shannon is magnificently nasty as Strickland, a discontent soldier of a man who lives to serve, but isn’t content with proper procedure. Shockingly, we find he has a family waiting for him every night, with an amorous wife and two enthusiastic kids… but we realize this is merely an unwanted distraction for him, as his love (or rather passion) is whatever mission he’s currently working on. When he yells at insubordinate subjects, it’s terrifying and impactful, one of his best and most intense characters to date.

Octavia Spencer is right at home playing Elisa’s concerned work friend, always looking out for her and trying to keep her safe, but also not afraid to speak her mind, at least when they’re behind closed doors. Michael Stuhlbarg has fun playing the mysterious Dr. Hoffstetler, a man with hidden motives, but also one with a soft side rarely seen in the hard world he inhabits. But I couldn’t end this review without spotlighting the masterful work done by Doug Jones as the Amphibian Man. Doug has worked on almost every film Guillermo has done, frequently under very heavy make up and prosthetic appliances, and in this case is transformed into a magnificent and otherworldly form. Without the benefit of speech, he has just as difficult of a job as Hawkins, perhaps even more so as at least she can use her face to convey emotion. Jones must rely on body language and motion to sell this role, and there’s so much beauty to his performance that you too will find him as appealing as Elisa does.

Some may find certain scenes a little too odd or just plain bizarre, including some sexual content that is at times jarring, and at other times hauntingly emotional. Certain visuals here will easily hold the place of the most effective and thought-provoking of 2017. Guillermo del Toro not only gives his movie a colorful style and presentation, he also frames his characters in ways that make them pop and resonate strongly with the audience, like seeing characters from a really good novel just fly off the page. The score by Alexandre Desplat is delightful and moving, giving the film a sound akin to a more classic piece of Hollywood entertainment. THE SHAPE OF WATER is a fascinating production, angelic and delicate when it needs to be, and jarring and harsh when it serves a purpose. But in the end it’s something magical that really resonates with the mind and spirit. This is perhaps not a film for everyone, but those with slightly eccentric tastes, or perhaps those with a desire for something outside of the ordinary… those people will be quite pleased with del Toro’s newest masterpiece, which I’d consider easily one of the best movies of the year.

THE SHAPE OF WATER opens December 8 in Limited Release, and goes wide December 22, 2017

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.