The Shape of Water
One of my biggest prejudices is a distrust of any film the Academy or the Globes chooses to be Best Picture. Over the years we dutifully rent the one for that year, hoping each time to be blown away. We’d settle for entertained. Every year we’re really disappointed (except Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), but we persevere. I’ve enjoyed Guillermo del Toro movies over the years, but he’s only had one that I liked so much I bought it. I’m a sucker for giant robots doing battle, in the hands of a competent director.
For a while I didn’t realize Shape is a fable about a mute woman, Elisa, who falls in love with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, being held captive and tortured/studied by a cold war warrior. Still, I hesitated, knowing it has the Best Picture black mark against it. The fantasy elements are obvious and beautifully done. There are whimsical moments, like the guy sitting in the rain at a bus stop with balloons and a partially eaten cake. Of course I heard Donna Summers in my head when I saw that image and it made me smile. I thought it was a pop culture reference, but being del Toro he meant it a lot deeper than that. It was an image showing the juxtaposition of Elisa, who should be lonely but really isn’t, and a guy who is taking his birthday cake home with him because no one showed up but him. That’s not only truly lonely, but pathetic as well, another thing Elisa is not.
Del Toro crafts the fantasy elements not only with the creature but with the setting, in a beautifully lit technicolor Cold War era. Most people today don’t remember or even understand that period of American history. It was bold and colorful, and we were the brash winners of the biggest cataclysm of the century. Of course it went to our heads and we used our new power for evil as well as good, this also being a contrast of the film. The socially acceptable good guy ends up being a human monster, while the socially reviled gay man becomes a hero; a “monster” is the strongest and kindest character and a “mere” custodial mute woman shows her immense strength of character and bravery.
Other fantasy elements include the obvious use of ancient fables from Greece and the Bible, and I’m sure many others I missed because that’s not my strong suit. I felt like the Russian spy character was a bit of political fantasy. The music reminded me somewhat of early Walter Hill movies, only more watery. There is, of course, a lot of water in the movie. From the beginning we see Elisa equates sex and water, and we are reminded of the power of water time and again. The Eskimo have fifty different terms for snow, and in Shape we see a multitude of waters. This is a director who always wrings the best performances from his actors, possibly his best ever here. The moral message of his fable might be obvious, but every other aspect has such depths this might be called the Marianas Trench of movies.
It took a while for me to write this review because while I admire the individual aspects of the movie quite a bit, there just seemed to be something missing, something that kept me from saying this is a great movie that everyone should see. The person I watched it with was very put off by the violence and some really nasty gore (which I admired but nearly couldn’t watch myself), and she’s not the only person I know who had a problem with that. But hey, it’s del Toro, you KNOW it’s going to happen. I think maybe it was just a little too perfect. Except for my feeling, there’s nothing wrong with this movie, so I just can’t explain it.
The Shape of Water is a modern fable that draws from all the stories ever told before, from cinematic to ancient to political. There are no weaknesses, and it’s beautiful to see. The only drawback for some people would be the level of violence and an ongoing gory image that starts innocently enough but gets really, really nasty by the end of the film. I’m going to say you should see this movie and if you do and you find yourself wondering, as I did, why you didn’t absolutely love it, let me know if you figure out why.
THE SHAPE OF WATER | Official Trailer | FOX Searchlight