The Shape of Water (R) ★★★

Elisa Esposito, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg star in “The Shape of Water.” Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight.

With 13 Nominations “The Shape of Water” Makes An Oscar Splash

Conventional wisdom tells us monsters are bad. They are strange, terrifying and are typically the villains of stories. This is not how Guillermo Del Toro, the director of The Shape of Water sees it. Since he broke through to American audiences with the gothic fantasy film, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Del Toro has depicted monsters as sympathetic, even heroic creatures. In fact, the director recently claimed: “monsters saved his life” and are “the patron saints of our blissful perfection” in a recent acceptance speech. This belief is at the heart of The Shape of Water, a fantasy tale about a mute woman and an amphibian-man hybrid creature who form quite the odd couple. Although the premise is clearly unusual and may not appeal to a broad audience, it is a well-made film with a unique script in an era where original storytelling is hard to find. 

The setting takes place in the 1950s during the heart of the Cold War. The main character Elisa (Sally Hawkins, Maudie, 2016) is a cleaning lady at a top-secret military facility in Baltimore and has lost the ability to speak due to a childhood injury. Elisa lives a quiet life and has only two friends – her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins, (LBJ, 2016), a sweet and sensitive artist, and her chatty co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures, 2016), who does the talking for both of them at work. As the audience is introduced to Elisa’s world, the score and art direction, arguably the most impressive aspects of the film, are on full display. Despite her routine existence, it’s clear something unusual is coming into her life. 

While at work one day, Elisa and the staff are informed by their superiors that an extremely “sensitive asset” will arrive at the facility. Right after the announcement, a massive mobile water tank with an unidentifiable object is wheeled into the lab accompanied by scientists and security. The security for the “asset” is led by the menacing Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals, 2016) while the lead scientist is Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, (Arrival, 2016). Although Elisa is curious is about what resides in the tank, she minds her own business. One day, however, when she and Zelda are cleaning outside the lab, the two hear the sound of a struggle inside. Soon after, Strickland wanders out covered in blood and their supervisor demands they clean the lab quickly.  While cleaning, Elisa walks closer to see inside the giant tank. A human sized amphibious creature appears in the glass. Although the floors are covered in blood (and two human fingers) due to the creature, Elisa is not scared of him. In fact, day after day, Elisa continues to sneak into the lab and eventually develops an unspoken relationship with the creature through acts of kindness like bringing him snacks and playing music. 

While Elisa and the creature bond (she even teaches him sign language), Strickland and Dr. Hoffstetler argue over what to do with him. The U.S. government doesn’t want him to fall into enemies’ hands due to possible military applications from its unique body. This fear isn’t unfounded as Russian spies plan to steal the creature in a side plot. Strickland, who frequently tortures the creature, and his bosses think the creature should be killed and dissected. Meanwhile, Hoffstetler, the scientist in the group, wants more time to learn from the creature believing he is a miracle. Elisa, who has a unique and loving relationship with the creature only wants to rescue him from harm as she overhears the plans for him.

The Shape of Water is definitely a unique film in the field of Oscars nominees this year. Those who can get past the bizarre premise will be impressed by the film for several reasons.  First, the acting from the incredibly talented cast is solid from top to bottom. Hawkins gives a very powerful performance as the kind-hearted, mute Elisa even without having any dialogue. Jenkins and Spencer compliment nicely as Elisa’s closest friends and provide Elisa outlets to express herself to the audience. Meanwhile, Shannon and Stuhlbarg, who reunite from their mutual time on Boardwalk Empire, are superb as they clash on how to handle “the asset.” All of these actors were perfectly cast and deliver with their performances. On top of the acting, the visual artistry in this movie and the beautiful, almost peaceful score truly create an escape for the audience in such a way that it is hard to imagine this movie without them. Finally, Del Toro who co-wrote and directed this film, did a masterful job of weaving fantasy and fairytale elements and even romance. Although it’s an unconventional movie for most, this is Del Toro’s passion and it could land him his first Oscar statue for direction.

Despite all of this praise (and its 13 Oscar nominations), The Shape of Water will not please everyone. Despite the fantasy angle, children shouldn’t see this film due to violence, nudity and sexual content. Also, as previously stated, the premise, at its core, is about a woman and creature falling in love, which will not entertain everyone. 

Bottom Line: The Shape of Water is a beautiful creation with memorable performances, but its fantasy premise may not be for all audiences.

Credits: Written by Guillermo Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor: Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

Cast: Sally Hawkins (Elisa Esposito), Michael Shannon (Richard Strickland), Richard Jenkins (Giles), Octavia Spencer (Zelda Fuller), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr. Robert Hoffstetler), Dough Jones (Amphibian Man)

Studio: Fox Searchlight

Running Time: 123 minutes

Jessica DeLong © January 10, 2018