In the interest of transparency and disclosure, let me start by saying that Guillermo Del Toro is one of my favorite directors working today and his latest endeavor would be on top of-or thereabout-the top of my watch list the moment I would hear about it. However talk of this film after its Venice festival premier didn’t just consist of the usual praise Del Toro’s movies gather; the critics were ecstatic and the buzz for the movie was through the roof. Thus it was impossible to go into the movie theater without some hefty expectations even from someone who adores most of the work Del Toro has done previously. Despite the reception, I made sure I learned nothing about the film besides the premise and some of the cast and I have to say that I left the theater with the same ecstatic feelings.
Before I start this spoiler-filled review, I want to warn people, who have not seen the movie yet to finish this paragraph, stop and come back after you have seen it. I find that I have better experiences going to theaters with as little information as possible about what I’m about to see and that is what I’m going to provide in this paragraph; the basic premise and nothing else. Later on I will go into detail about several aspects of the movie and it will be full of spoilers; if you wish for a spoiler-free review I have one as well that is more concise. So the premise here is that a cleaner, portrayed by Sally Hawkins, at a top secret research facility in the 1960s develops a unique relationship with a recently transferred creature.
Let me start the review with probably the most noteworthy and best executed element of this movie; the visuals. Fans of Del Toro and especially Del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” will not be surprised as the Mexican Director always had a knack for visual eye-candy experiences and here he teams up once again with a lot of the crew from 2015’s “Crimson Peak”, such as director of photography Dan Laustsen, to deliver another spectacular looking experience. The movie has a ‘lived-in yet magical’ vibe to it that is simultaneously gritty and fantastical, which for me is one of the many qualities of Del Toro; his ability to have a distinct visual style in all of his movies and still make every one of his movies feel new and fresh. Furthermore, the high production values and set design contribute in achieving a visual master class and help build the world and characters; Elisa and Giles apartments feel working class adding to their characters, while the sector where the creature is kept in feels efficient, clinical and mechanical. Speaking of which, the design and performance capture of the creature was, once again in a Del Toro movie, amazing. Doug Jones did an excellent job as the creature, giving movements that were very human and animal like giving me ‘uncanny valley’ moments where the movie convinced me to see the creature as a human character and then snapped back to seeing the creature as what it was when the animalistic nature of it resurfaced-in striking fashion as well, for example eating one of the pet cats that Giles owns- and that is as much credit to Del Toro and Doug Jones as it is to the performance capture team and the CGI as its integration with the rest of the film was seamless.
The second feature a moviegoer would notice in this movie is the soundtrack, as it sells the viewer on the 1960s aesthetics of the movie and works throughout the movie to enhance the immersion to the period, enhance the themes of the movie, as well as help the movie bring the pace where the plot requires it to be, such as moments of danger and stress for the characters-like the ‘edge of your seat’ breakout segment and the final moments of the film or moments of sadness; such as Elise’s monologue towards the creature that erupts to a musical and comes back down to re-enter reality. The melody playing throughout the movie was also instrumental in selling the fairy tale-like vibe of the story and Elise who views it as such; I don’t know how to whistle but the theme tempted me to try and I think that’s the real genius of it, it made me see the world as cheerfully and as positively as Elise did. The sound design is also very well done, with a few standout moments such as the creature’s noises and howls, but mostly it remains in the background ensuring your immersion and not breaking it with unnatural sounds.
The third feature fans will notice is surely the incredibly strong performances by the actors involved. A lot of praise should also go to Del Toro for his directing skills, which will be analyzed further down, however both acting and directing are interlinked and without both any movie would suffer; “The Shape of water” is not such movie. The entire cast brought a lot of talent and passion with them as Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones and Michael Stulhbarg all provide great performances, but special mention should be given to Sally Hawkins award-worthy performance and Octavia Spencer’s exceptional performance. Sally Hawkins as Elise absolutely nails her character and the performance is both restrained and impactful, alongside Octavia Spenser as Zelda Fuller, her friend and colleague, who made her character familiar, funny and meaningful. For me these two performances overshadowed an otherwise great ensemble of actors and performances, with Michael Shannon giving an expectedly great performance as Richard Strickland the main antagonist, Richard Jenkins as Giles the next door neighbor of Elise who brought a bitter sweetness and familiarity to the role, Michael Stulhbarg as Doctor Hoffstetler who portrayed a character that required a lot of nuance to pull off which he managed to do impressively well and Doug Jones whose aforementioned role as the creature was once again captivating.
Special mention should also go to Del Toro’s directing as mentioned before. One of the common criticisms towards Del Toro’s movies is that, while beautiful to look at, he often sets aside plot to focus more on atmosphere and visuals. In the “Shape of water” nothing takes a back seat, as story and themes are satisfying, meaningful and well executed, visuals as said before are amazing, his direction skills towards the cast seem to be excellent while his trickery with the camera and shot compositions are as masterful as ever. As with most of the movies he directs, he also wrote “The Shape of Water” but this time around, I can’t see too many criticisms directed towards the plot; essentially perfecting the romantic drama he went for in “Crimson Peak”.
However there is one criticism of the plot that I have to mention. For me 90% of the movie can be interpreted on your own, making for a captivating experience; I personally saw the creature-during my first viewing- as a symbolism of that special someone that to others may be a sinful abomination or a freak but to those who get to know them they are a life giving savior. However, often times film-makers decide to add a conversation or a very clear indication that showcases their exact meaning and intentions behind their themes and symbolisms; this always bothers me, especially in movies that are open to interpretation, and unfortunately Shape of Water is one of those movies. In an exchange between the creature and Strickland right at the end of the movie, during the climactic finale, Strickland says: “Fuck you really are a god” and this is a bit too ‘on the nose’ for my liking-especially in my first viewing with the interpretation I was having- and a bit of a letdown in an otherwise excellent movie. Nonetheless this fairy tale-like story of a mute woman falling in love with a fish-man is deep and meaningful; it made me disregard what I was literally watching- a woman and a fish-man falling in love-and made me see the layered and nuanced take on the story of a troubled outsider in the world finding her special someone and doing everything possible to free him and be with him, finding meaning and overcoming her fears in the process.
Finally the editing is also brilliantly handled by the movie, with a few exceptions that could have been handled better. Editing wise, the only real missteps are a couple of deus ex machina moments that the story is more at fault rather than the editing and a few nitpicks that I have within scenes that are supposed to be fast and push the viewer on the edge of their seat that don’t flow perfectly. Specifically I’m talking about how the plot restarts after the creature is brought in the facility and Elise starts developing a relationship with him; she has a scene where she dances and cleans the laboratory and has a moment with the creature when there is a cut to Dr. Hoffstetler standing in the lab watching them. This scene is important as it sets up why Hoffstetler trusts Elise later on as well as showing us the developing relationship between Elise and the creature, however the movie shows multiple times how slow and loud the procedure is to enter the lab thus either Elise has been dancing, cleaning and developing a relationship with the creature while Hoffstetler looks in silence and somehow remains unnoticed or he magically transported into the lab. Another similar scene is when Strickland finds out where the creature is by confronting Zelda in her house. When she doesn’t break, her husband steps in and gives him the information he supposedly overheard his wife saying while on the phone, which again important but unearned because we have not seen that take place; the only thing we do see is Elise being sad at work and Zelda inquiring why, which cuts to Elise’s bathroom where the creature is struggling to remain alive and Zelda trying to contact Dr. Hoffstetler, thus we are unaware of the phone call and what could the husband have overheard Zelda say since this is a secret both she and Elise know and don’t need to discuss-besides the fact that Elise is mute and we are shown how hard it is to communicate with her over the phone. In my opinion this is nitpicking and can be editing decisions for the overall betterment of the movie, however in a movie that has so little flaws, even these small ones stand out. Moreover I could see the 2nd act starting a bit sooner or lasting a bit less, which would have made the runtime of the movie and its insistence to grow its characters on the viewer less tiring. Although these issues are there, the film flows effortlessly from one shot to the other not breaking the flow all that often and there aren’t any jarring transitions or continuity errors, and does not subtract from the experience. There is a flaw that in my opinion actually harms the movie; the final 2 minutes of the movie. After Strickland raids Elise’s house, he finds out that the creature is driven towards the docks to be released into the ocean and be gone forever. Firstly, this sequence is poorly paced in my opinion; Strickland finds out that Elise has the creature and leaves Zelda’s house heading towards Elise, meanwhile Zelda calls Elise to warn her and she alongside Giles take the creature to the docks. Strickland arrives at Elise’s house, finds the reminder Elise made for when the creature is to be taken to the docks and storms off again to the docks arriving shortly after Elise and gunning down Elise and the creature. This sequence to me felt rushed as the time it takes for Strickland to travel, investigate and then travel again is 10 seconds longer than the time it takes Elise, Giles and the creature to head to the docks, which made it seem to me that the movie just wanted to end as quickly as possible. Secondly-and most importantly-the creature after getting shot stands up, walks towards Strickland-who is franticly trying to reload his gun- and cuts his throat immediately after Strickland says: “Fuck, you really are a god!” There’s nothing wrong with the ending of the movie; it was a satisfying end in my opinion. However, the line that Strickland says spelled out the meaning and symbolism the movie had been building up to thus far, which for someone like me-who does not follow Christianity or any religion-who put a completely different take in the obvious-but multi-layered- religious symbolisms of the movie really harmed my experience with it. I was blissfully unaware of any religious sub context because the movie up to now did not call any direct attention to it, so I wished that the movie could restrain itself and allow its messages and symbolisms to be interpreted by anyone however they liked. Lastly, the character of Richard Strickland could have been treated a bit differently as he was throughout the movie just making sure you see him as the villain. Although after the movie, when I thinks back, I see that he had a role in the message, if during the movie we had seen just a bit more from him as a character with a family and his own twisted thoughts, I would argue it would have made his character deeper and a better antagonist as well.
All in all though, the movie is a fantastic achievement and a real must-see. Personally, my long and impatient wait was rewarded and would rank the movie 2nd just behind Pan’s Labyrinth on Del Toro’s work so far. But considering how much I love Pan’s Labyrinth that is as high of a recommendation as any. Despite a few small missteps regarding execution of editing and story, every aspect of this movie is masterfully done and I had a blast experiencing it on the big screen, twice now, and can’t wait for that Blu-ray so I can experience it again and again.