“The Shape of Water” is a visually astounding piece that could only have been brought to life by the mind of its writer/director Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro’s tenth feature film follows Sally Hawkins’ Elisa Esposito, a mute woman who works as a cleaner for an underground government agency, whose life is turned around after she begins to build a relationship with an amphibious “specimen” being studied in the lab.
The tone of the film is immediately established and, for the most part, maintained throughout. After some visual foreshadowing, we are quickly introduced to the day-to-day life of Elisa. She wakes up, packs lunch, cleans her shoes, takes a bath and then rushes next door to make sure her neighbor eats, a rigorous schedule all set to a ticking clock. In contrast, her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a down-on-his-luck artist who is being thrown out of his industry due to the rise of photography. The two have a very realistic odd-couple chemistry that, though it walks the line of being one-sided, works because Hawkins maintains a strong, almost stage-like presence on screen.
Since Elisa is a mute, she communicates with American Sign Language, sometimes translated through close captions and other times simply by the other characters’ responses. Like her interactions with Giles, the conversations following Elisa are surprisingly dynamic, due to Hawkins’ performance.
ASL allows for inflection with expression; your face and intensity of motion signify your tone. Hawkins elevates these expressive gestures into a broad range of emotions; her stern, confident moments are just as intense as her more dramatic, hopeless attitudes.
In terms of technical aesthetics, the film is absolutely brilliant. Everything about “The Shape of Water” screams its time period: a dark and make-shift Cold War era where people no longer care for the arts and are just trying to get by. This is all emphasized by the magnificent sets and art direction. The colors of the film are cold and jaded and the sets look like they are barely hanging on.
The unnamed Creature, portrayed by frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones, is a wonder to look at. A practical, tangible monster that looks as if it were just pulled from the depths of the sea. The sound, look and movement of the Creature are convincing and refreshing compared to the more common CGI monsters of late.
But the true standout, not to this reviewer’s surprise, is Michael Shannon as the relentless Colonel Richard Strickland. Strickland’s descent from power to madness in this film could not have been more masterfully performed; Shannon was born to play, and sometimes over play, the antagonist. He is notorious for going over the edge while somehow remaining completely believable, a statement that could apply to del Toro and “The Shape of Water” as a whole.
Overall del Toro’s new film is just that: a del Toro film. It’s a visually pleasing, layered metaphor with a fantastical element. The story goes from A to B and hits all the expected plot points, and, if it weren’t for the incredibly interesting sights on-screen, the film would not be able to maintain interest. But as it is, this is an absolute must see for followers of del Toro. “The Shape of Water” is clearly a culmination of all the lessons, motifs and filmmaking tools the writer/director has picked up throughout his storied career.
Written by Rummel Medina.