SPOILER ALERT: I'll try not to give away too much of the film's key plot points, but there will be enough discussion of plot and character here that you will probably want to watch the film before reading this review. But make sure to come back and join in the discussion. Thanks!
Guillermo del Toro has said that his 2017 Oscar-nominated monster movie/fairy tale The Shape of Water is about "the beauty of the Other." It is a sentiment for our time, with so much political discussion about fear of those we don't know or those who are different than us. With that in mind, you may think the movie could fall into a heavy-handed political preachfest. It is a testament to the work of del Toro and his entire cast and crew that this doesn't happen. That is because - as all good writers must do - any themes or messages are simply a part of the story. They are there for the viewer to unearth, if they are even there at all.
The film opens with one of the more enchanting sequences I've seen. The music from Alexandre Desplat molds beautifully with Dan Laustsen's cinematography and the voice-over from Richard Jenkins. It is trance-like, and while it sets *a* tone for the film, I was disappointed to find that much of the film sheds the transcendant qualities of this opening scene.
At its most basic, this is a classic monster movie with accents of fairy tales (most notably Beauty and the Beast). In fact, a good synopsis of this film would be - Beauty and the Beast if the beast never transformed. Here, the "beast" is a creature (Doug Jones) something akin to a cross between a fish and a human. He has characteristics that are close enough to our own to feel somewhat familiar, but he looks otherworldly at the same time. He is foreign, and we so often fear what we do not know.
But first, we meet Elisa (Sally Hawkins). She is a mute janitor at a government research facility in Cold War-era Baltimore. She lives next door to a man named Giles (Jenkins), her friend who we later find out to be gay. They live above a theater, and Giles is obsessed with classic movies. He works as an ad designer, but he is an artist at heart. He takes Elisa to a pie shop where they buy pies that aren't really all that tasty. Giles just wants to go so he can talk to the man behind the counter (Morgan Kelly) on whom Giles has a crush.
We follow Elisa to work where she cleans alongside her friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). Zelda is not afraid to cut corners for her friend, she routinely holds Elisa's place in line to punch in on the clock each morning. They work mostly in the background. That is, until the new "asset" arrives.
Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is in charge of the new research project that he brought from the swamps of South America. We also meet Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is conducting the research. Strickland is mainly focused on following protocols. That is true of his entire life. By following the rules, he believes he will have the American Dream lifestyle he always wanted.
With all the characters in place, the story begins to pick up its pace. Elisa feels a connection with the creature, because he does not know that she lacks a voice. He sees her as she wants to be seen. This goes back to that idea of the "the Other" and how even those that are deemed damaged goods are beautiful beings to be cherished.
I mentioned the film's political leanings at the outset. While I never felt it was heavy-handed, I think its themes were mishandled at times. For instance, there is a scene where we see news footage of civil rights protesters being pushed back with fire hoses. We see flashes on screen, but then the film moves on. Obviously racial discrimination molds into the themes the movie is attempting to discuss. Just as looks and physical disabilities should not cause us to look down on "the Other" the same can be said for race.
But I think this is mishandled, because it ends up just becoming a background story. I must give a tip of the hat to Sheila O'Malley and her review for RogerEbert.com here, because she also discusses this aspect of the film. The film is definitely told with a fairy tale quality, and throwing this real-life footage into the background pulls you out of the story just a little. Again, I wouldn't say it is heavy-handed as much as its slightly mishandled. The audience is smart. We'll get that this story is meant to have application in real-life scenarios. The underlining with actual news footage was just a bit much for me.
Having said that, this is a film of incredibly high quality. The cinematography and score are especially worthy of praise. But, just as I felt about another 2017 film, the opening scene is never topped. The Shape of Water had me floored at the very beginning, but it never quite got me back to that point.
And then, there's the sexual content. It is gratuitous and graphic at times. This is not a film for young audiences in the slightest. This is obviously a creative choice by del Toro, and I'm sure it serves a purpose. But it was too much for me. It also pulled me out of the story - something that is a major negative when the story is this good.
I also was never quite able to put my finger on the religious themes at play. Certainly they are there. I'd like to think (as John McAteer suggests in his review for Christian Research Institute) that a subtle discussion of grace vs. the law is at play here. You can certainly make the case that Strickland is an embodiment of the legalistic view of faith. I'm just never quite sure that the film wants to go there. The biblical story of Samson even finds its way into the screenplay, and there is mention of the fact that human beings are created in God's image. But I never felt like these religious themes were adequately explored.
I've already noted the incredible work of del Toro, Laustsen and Desplat in this film, but the acting deserves its own unique callout. The entire cast is incredible, so much so that worthy supporting performances from Shannon and Stuhlbarg fade in comparison. The triumverate of Jenkins, Hawkins and Spencer are all incredible in this film. Hawkins says so much without audibly saying anything at all, and Spencer is so good in everything she does that you have to be careful not to take her skill for granted. She is certainly one of the best actresses working today. But I found Jenkins to be the film's best performance. There is so much going on under the surface of his character. And when he makes one of the film's key decisions, you completely understand his reasoning and you feel for what brought him to that moment.
Overall, this was a moving film. It has so much to say about our current cultural climate and how we should relate to people who are different than us or marginalized by society. At first, it may feel like a story about a mute woman and a fish-like creature is going overboard. But then, you consider the headlines we see every day, and you realize that our culture already looks at people who are different like they are alien creatures. In so many ways, we need to see each other as human beings and accept those differences to move forward.
That a film can work on those levels is quite an achievement, indeed. Even considering the issues I had with The Shape of Water, I cannot come to any other conclusion except that this is a film of the highest quality, worthy of all the praise it is receiving.
Note on content: This film has gratuituous sexual content including multiple scenes with nudity. It also has some gory scenes that will certainly make you squirm. There is also vulgar language (both spoken and signed). It's interesting, because this is really a tender film at heart but it conveys its themes with a great deal of harsh content. In any case, it is not a film for young viewers, and even adult viewers may have a hard time with its tonal inconsistency.