close menu
THE SHAPE OF WATER is Guillermo del Toro’s Most Soulful Film Yet (TIFF Review)

THE SHAPE OF WATER is Guillermo del Toro’s Most Soulful Film Yet (TIFF Review)

In the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to point out right here at the top that I am not the biggest fan of director Guillermo del Toro. Like the Academy, I fell hard for Pan’s Labyrinth, but otherwise he has always struck me as the cinematic version of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. His films are shiny and beautiful, perfectly constructed and astonishingly efficient. But if they only had a heart.

It turns out he had a heart all along. His latest, The Shape of Water, is just as gorgeous and visually intricate as last year’s Crimson Peak and as wickedly funny as Hellboy, but it is also tender and deeply felt. The film is set during the Cold War, when government officials took roads both high and low to win their arms race with the Soviet Union. The events of the film take place against the backdrop of the Apollo moon landing (that would be the high road), but its setting is a gray, windowless world of a scientific laboratory presided over by cruel state employee named Strickland (Michael Shannon). Strickland and his chief scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) have captured a dangerous monster in South America, and it could be the key to defeating the Russians. They tell their employees, including the cleaning ladies, Eliza (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to keep their distance from the dangerous creature, who is submerged in a water-filled tank.

He’s not a monster to Eliza, who immediately finds in him a kindred spirit. Mute since birth, Eliza lives a loveless life, with Zelda and her insecure, middle-aged neighbor (Richard Jenkins) as her only companions. When she sees the amphibious monster–half-man, half-fish, essentially–her heart reaches out to him, and soon the two are sharing romantic moments at the edge of his tank. All that’s missing is the moonlight. When she learns that Strickland is planning to vivisect and destroy her soul mate, she enlists her friends, and a few unexpected helpers, to spring him from his prison and release him to the sea.

There are tense chase sequences, moments of brutal violence, and mesmerizing visuals, but what stands out most about The Shape of Water is its utter decency. This is a film that looks for and celebrates our best selves, a position that seems almost magical in comparison to the world offscreen. If you’re going to make such a film, it helps to have Sally Hawkins on your side. After her breakout turn as a chatty optimist in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky in 2008, other filmmakers have struggled to utilize her talents (although she was wonderful in this year’s little-seen Maudie). Perhaps ours is not a world for sunny optimism. Del Toro takes away her gift of gab, but still the sun shines through. As Eliza, Hawkins exudes every positive quality we could apply to a human being; she’s kind, creative, compassionate, and, yes, sexy–all without using her voice. I can’t think of another actor who can make your heart swell with just a wry smile.

Then again, The Shape of Water is about subjects that cannot be reduced to words anyway, and its themes ripple outwards of their own accord, without explanation or pedagogy. Strickland is a personification of personal and political evil, exuding misogyny and racism, to go along with his general hatred of all things different. A perfectly cast villain, his performance, grounded in the most indecent elements of our humanity, allows the film’s cathartic tale of liberation to be accessible to all marginalized groups, without the politics feeling superfluous or shoehorned in. You could see The Shape of Water as an animal rights story (plot-wise, it bears a few similarities to Free Willy and Rise of the Planet of the Apes), or a racial drama, or a feminist one, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

Still, to call The Shape of Water a political film would be reductive. If it is a doctrine, its guiding principles are love and compassion. It is a story of dreams made real, and the rare film that can rip your heart open and leave your brain intact. In other words, Guillermo del Toro has made himself a new fan.

Rating: 4.5 sopping wet burritos out of 5

 

 

 

Images: Fox Searchlight

Final Images from Cassini Are Stunning

Final Images from Cassini Are Stunning

article
What If THOR: RAGNAROK Were Actually Made in the 1980s?

What If THOR: RAGNAROK Were Actually Made in the 1980s?

video
Stephen King's 8 Favorite Films

Stephen King's 8 Favorite Films

article