Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Review: The Shape of Water (2017)

The Shape of Water (2017)

Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language

Score: 5 out of 5

If I were to describe The Shape of Water with a comparison to another movie, then the obvious one, at first glance at least, would seem to be Creature from the Black Lagoon. Vintage horror movies have always been among the greatest influences on writer and director Guillermo del Toro, the man having built his career and reputation off of films like Pan's Labyrinth, the Godzilla throwback Pacific Rim, and the gothic romance homage Crimson Peak, and it's clear that the merman he created for this film drew heavily from the Creature. That said, I think there's a much better comparison to be made. The film that The Shape of Water most reminded me of wasn't a vintage horror movie, but rather, an adult, romantic version of The Iron Giant. The films share a late '50s/early '60s setting that is brought to vivid life with a clear, nostalgic love for the era's aesthetic, pop culture, and B-movies, albeit one that goes hand-in-hand with an equally vivid recognition that society at the time was deeply flawed and rotten in some very big ways (quite literally here, in one of this film's more notable metaphors) beneath its wholesome, feel-good surface. The protagonists of both films are people with few friends and a love of pop culture kitsch (a young boy who loves comic books in that film, an adult woman who loves Hollywood musicals in this one) who feel alienated from the world around them, only to find partners in the unlikely form of monsters straight out of period sci-fi horror movies. The human antagonists are both men working for the government who, on the surface, are rugged paragons of old-school Hollywood masculinity, but who turn out to have all manner of deep insecurities over their place in the world.

And both are spectacular movies. Just as The Iron Giant was an affectionate paean to childhood nostalgia and optimism that stands as one of Brad Bird's best films, The Shape of Water is a beautiful, unorthodox romance that will likely stand as one of Guillermo del Toro's best. From the attention to detail in the setting, to a fleet of outstanding performances from its all-star cast, to excellent special effects work on the part of the creature, to some on-point writing and metaphors in its twisting story that isn't afraid to "go there", all the way to an outstanding soundtrack, this film closed 2017 out for me on a high note.

The year is 1962, and Elisa Esposito works as a janitor at a government laboratory in Baltimore. Having been left mute as an infant thanks to an accident that also claimed her parents, she lives in an apartment over a movie theater, her only friends being her next-door neighbor Giles, a struggling commercial artist and closeted gay man, and Zelda, her fellow janitor at the lab who regales her with tales of her lazy husband. That all changes one day when a new, top-secret experiment is brought in: a humanoid, amphibious sea monster that had been captured in the Amazon. While the scientists at the lab, led by Colonel Strickland, want to dissect the creature as part of research into spacecraft life-support systems for the Space Race, Elisa soon finds that she can communicate with him via sign language, making a new friend in the process -- and, eventually, something more than that. Hoping to save the creature, Elisa smuggles him out of the lab with the help of Zelda, Giles, and a scientist named Bob Hoffstetler -- actually a Soviet spy named Dimitri who's under orders to kill the creature in order to deny him to the Americans, only to have second thoughts upon witnessing Elisa communicating with him and seeing that he is, in fact, sentient and intelligent. Unfortunately, Strickland is having none of this, especially with his superior General Hoyt breathing down his neck, and sets out to find and recapture the creature, and take out the people who kidnapped him.

The thing about every major character in this movie is that they feel isolated and not in control of their own lives. Elisa lost her voice at a young age and feels incomplete without it, and immediately bonds with the creature as a result, as, being unable to speak himself, he is the only sentient being around her who does not see her as "missing" something vital. To most, she's an anonymous, almost sexless figure, with nobody except the creature realizing her desires for something more out of life. Giles and Zelda face discrimination in the highly traditionalist society of the time, the former forced to conceal his romantic affection for a young, handsome restaurant owner (who throws him out when he tries to make a move) and the latter facing racism from her superiors as a black woman. Giles has the extra misfortune of being an older man whose skill set is growing obsolete; he paints advertising posters in a world that's moving on to using photographs in print ads. Dimitri became a spy because he wanted to see the world and learn more about it, not kill people and destroy knowledge, causing him to turn against his KGB handlers and start assisting Elisa. Even the villainous Strickland is pretty clearly not in control of his own life, despite all of his efforts to present the image of a classic "man's man". He finds himself easily swayed by a Cadillac salesman into buying a different, more expensive car than the one he was interested in even though he didn't like the color, he finds that the sound of his wife's voice kills his arousal when they have sex (causing him to take an interest in the silent Elisa), and most importantly, he is not fully in charge at the lab he ostensibly runs, instead taking orders from General Hoyt and finding himself quickly cowed into submission when he disappoints him. The seeming smallness of Elisa, Zelda, Giles, and Dimitri allows them to easily subvert the security at the lab, with Strickland and Hoyt more than willing to believe that a KGB black-ops team busted the creature out and not a group of four civilians comprised of equal parts intellectuals and blue-collar workers.

And speaking of the monster, he is a thing of beauty on screen. Played by creature actor and longtime del Toro collaborator Doug Jones (no relation to the Alabama senator), he is brought to life almost entirely with stunning practical effects worn by a man in a suit, and from the moment we see him, he is at once terrifying and icky yet endearingly human-like. The creature is clearly a threat, with his claws, his teeth, and his predator instinct allowing him to bite off two of Strickland's fingers and kill various small animals; it's easy to buy why he needs so much security, and so many cattle prods, to keep him down. Yet it is also established early on that he is intelligent, hinted at various points to be not just a species previously unknown to science, but quite possibly supernatural as well (he was worshiped as a god by an Amazon tribe). Both Jones and the special effects do a great job bringing to life a character who clearly is not human, in his appearance or his mannerisms, yet is far more than an animal, somebody who can think, plan, react, and love. Sally Hawkins makes for a perfect companion to Jones, rivaling him for having one of the hardest jobs of any of this film's actors: creating a compelling protagonist without being able to utter a single word of dialogue. The scene where Elisa is explaining to Giles, in sign language, why she won't stand to let the creature be treated as an "it" instead of a "him", drawing on her own experience with being made to feel less than human due to her lack of a voice, brought me to tears, and it was all due to Hawkins' acting with her facial expressions and body language. Together, the two of them are radiant, keeping me invested in their blossoming relationship and making the film's runtime flow by.

The supporting cast also shined. Michael Shannon made for a gripping villain as Strickland, whose facade of being the man in charge slowly cracks and falls apart over the course of the film, reflected in how two of his fingers, reattached to his body after the creature tore them off, slowly start to rot, stink, and turn gangrenous in vivid detail -- the visible crack that the creature left on him representing all the psychological ones that we can only see in his behavior. (And never let it be said that del Toro has ever passed up a golden opportunity for body-horror.) Octavia Spencer does great work as Zelda, a woman fed up with her dead-end job, her loveless marriage, and the racism of society, while Richard Jenkins makes Giles feel like a man out of time, an aging artist whose best days are behind him in both his personal life and his career, and joins Elisa in finding solace and escape in old musicals. Michael Stuhlbarg gives Dimitri a touch of idealism, a man who believes in his country and the principles it was founded on yet grows disillusioned with what he has to do to uphold such as an agent of the KGB. The entire cast here felt well-rounded, all of them having a clear purpose in the film and none of them wasted, as both del Toro's writing and the cast's performances created fleshed-out people rather than one-dimensional caricatures.

Finally, behind the camera, both at the writer's desk and in the director's chair, we have Guillermo del Toro himself. Even in his lesser films like Crimson Peak, the visual and audio design alone usually redeems subpar writing, which was thankfully not a problem here; rather, his gifts as a director elevate this film's already-solid writing and performances. While this film is definitely "horror-adjacent", otherwise it is del Toro's twist on a straight-up romance, and to that end he crafts a beautiful-looking film. The attention to detail in the '60s setting, from the old-fashioned computers and linoleum floors in the lab to Strickland's bright, Leave It to Beaver suburban home to the streets of Baltimore outside of Elisa and Giles' apartment, is downright impeccable, feeling as though I had genuinely stepped into the past as opposed to watching a movie filmed on either sets or modern streets dolled up to look old. Alexandre Desplat's score is impeccably used, evoking both classic monster movies and classic romances in a way that feels majestic, making the viewer believe that the creature has a soul and that he can love a human woman. This movie was two hours long and felt like it, yet when it was over, I wanted to stay in its world for just a little while longer. It managed to make its seemingly gritty locations -- a secret government laboratory, downtown city streets, a salt mine, a seaport, a KGB safehouse -- feel fantastic, bringing to them a magic that lesser films have often failed to bring to actual fantasy or sci-fi settings.

The Bottom Line

Without a doubt one of the best films of both 2017 and Guillermo del Toro's career, it flies across genres -- romance, monster movies, espionage -- and tells a deeply moving story with compelling characters. Mark my words: this is gonna be an Oscar contender.

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