Posted December 14, 2017 by Jasmin in Movies

MOVIE REVIEW: The Shape of Water – A Beautiful Tale of Defiance

“This time, the monster is going to f— the girl…” Actor Doug Jones on his Shape of Water character

The Shape of Water is a great many things. It’s a love story, a political thriller, a fantasy film; but above all else it is a film about choice.

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, and Michael Stuhlbarg
Directed By: Guillermo del Toro

The Shape of Water

© Fox Searchlight

Guillermo del Toro’s well crafted tale opens in a fantastical way that instantly places the audience between two worlds. The fantasy quickly gives way to the realities of a routine life. The uncomfortableness of sharing an intimate moment serves to set the tone that this isn’t your average fairy tale. The film stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito, Octavia Spencer as Zelda Fuller, Richard Jenkins as Giles, Michael Shannon as Richard Strickland, and Doug Jones as the Amphibian Man. Three of the aforementioned five actors picked up Golden Globe nominations as part of the film’s seven total Globe nods. Sally Hawkins brings so much emotion and expression to a character who is mute that she deserves the all the praise. With its visuals, message, and superb cast, it is clear to see why The Shape of Water is a critical darling.

Set sometime in the midst of the Cold War and the Space Race, the film touches on a few different themes. What it does not do well, however, is covering the Civil Rights Movement. There is a scene where Elisa is casually flipping through the channels and stops on black marchers being sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by German Shepherds. There’s another instance later in the film where a black couple was degradingly turned away from a restaurant.

Now, the way Strickland casually throws around racist comments as he is interacting with characters would have been enough for audiences to realize exactly which time frame in American history the story falls. As a woman of color, I found the scenes of blatant racism to be trite and unnecessary. In a film where two characters of a different species have sex, it says a lot that only the racism feels forced.

Strickland, Elisa, Zelda - The Shape of Water

© Fox Searchlight

Shannon plays to the “evil white man” trope; a recurring theme in del Toro films that the director has addressed. His character, Strickland, is obnoxious, demeaning, misogynistic, racist, and just a downright asshole. His ambition is his only redeeming quality, and that makes his demise so much sweeter. There are several cringe-worthy moments when he’s on screen; all of which drive home the point that he is despicable. I prefer my villains more charismatic; but the flat way that Shannon delivers his zingers adds to the creep factor of the character. Though the character lacks personality, it works in this film.

The Shape of Water wastes little time in showing the connection between Elisa and Amphibian Man/The Asset. She is a reprieve from the torture he endures, and he is the companionship that breaks her loneliness. “The way he looks at me, he doesn’t know what I lack,” she signs to Giles, her (gay and closeted) neighbor and friend.

Elisa and Giles - The Shape of Water

© Fox Searchlight

Relationships are what stand out most in The Shape of Water. Character development is limited because we meet everyone when they are already set in their ways. No one has endured a lengthy arc by the film’s end, but each character makes defiant choices that drive the plot forward. “If we do nothing, so are we,” Elisa signs to Giles when he first refuses to help her save the Amphibian Man from Strickland’s kill order. It is these small moments that carry so much weight.

Small choices lead to big decisions, and before long, Russians and Americans are working together to stop a madman from killing an unknown/unstudied creature. In this fairy tale, it takes a village to save a “man” and as such, everyone’s life is changed because of it.

Elisa and Amphibian Man - The Shape of Water

© Fox Searchlight

Between the politics and other ugly signs of the time, the film blossoms with otherworldly visuals and vignettes of old Hollywood charm. Elisa and Giles tap dancing to The Little Colonel; clips of Carmen Miranda singing “Chica Chica Boom Chic”; the stylized (imaginary) dance between Elisa and Amphibian Man set to Vera Lynn’s “You’ll Never Know”; all of these pieces blend well and bring the film its fantasy charm. After all, the best Disney films have musical numbers, right?

The Shape of Water is a beautiful, ethereal tale of defiance. There’s cursing, nudity, sex, and violence as del Toro gives viewers a film that’s high concept yet all too familiar. Contrasting real world events paint a vivid picture that “otherness” is bad and should not be accepted. Thankfully, our heroine refuses to conform, even in the face of certain death. And is it turns out, sometimes all one needs is a little spark to discover that their true self was hiding in plain sight all along.

The Shape of Water opens for wide release on December 22nd.

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Jasmin loves Batman, sci-fi, and movies with lots of explosions. When she’s not writing about geektastic things, she’s probably playing video games or watching sports. Her ultimate goals include traveling the world to watch tennis and working for BioWare to revive the essence of the original Mass Effect Trilogy.