Cinematic Releases: A Monstrous Romance: The Shape of Water (2017) - Reviewed

Guillermo del Toro is a master of crafting atmosphere and mood with his filmography encompassing a gamut of genres. His specialty is dark fantasy and his newest film, The Shape of Water (2017), is a worthy entry.

The film takes place in Baltimore during the early '60s at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. A young mute woman named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works there as a janitor on the night shift. During one of her rounds she discovers the existence of "Amphibious Man" (Doug Jones) a humanoid water creature that is being kept prisoner in a tank by the military. The rest of the film follows her interactions with this mysterious being and her run-ins with Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) a mean-spirited, jingoistic colonel.

Sally Hawkins is fabulous in this role and her vivacious personality and intense emotions shine through every one of her scenes. Since she is mute, she only communicates through sign language -- her body language and facial expressions carry most of the performance. Her best friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) is heartfelt and sassy, injecting a lot of warmth and snark into the narrative. Shannon is downright menacing and he plays a convincing villain as he slowly spirals into rage and hatred. There is a creative visual indicator with his character as he has two cut-off fingers that get reattached to his hand due to an accident, that slowly fester and rot as the movie progresses mirroring his own internal feelings. The real star of the film is Doug Jones as Amphibious Man, who's design takes more than a few notes from the monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). He is in heavy makeup and prosthesis and his physical acting skills are unparalleled. They could have made his character full CGI, but the fact that it's a real person in a suit gives it an organic and realistic feel that just can't be replicated by computer graphics. I love that Del Toro is trying to keep practical effects alive. The set design in the film is fantastic as well.

The Shape of Water is a fairy tale, a romance (with shades of horror), and most importantly, a social commentary on the persecution of "the other". Both Elisa and Amphibious Man are treated like they are beneath "normal" people, unworthy of basic respect, and because of that they form an unbreakable bond. The fascist military trope is tried-and-true and it does feel a bit heavy-handed in comparison to the more whimsical parts of the story, but as a whole it meshes together and is successful at telling a compelling tale. Del Toro handles tone-mixing well and the horror elements never overwhelm the love story. One surprising element is the honest depiction of sexuality, particularly with Elisa's character. She is a sexual being and the film isn't afraid to celebrate it. I find this take to be refreshing and it's always great to see a complex female character not demonized for having sex or sexual urges.

With its art-deco gothic look and haunting score courtesy of Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water is one of the most unique films to come out this year. This is Del Toro's finest work since Pan's Labyrinth (2006) and is well worth checking out on the big screen.


--Michelle Kisner