Guillermo Del Toro stands as the master of dark fairy-tales, he revels in pouring brutality, sexuality, and morbid realities into his magical stories, subsequently making them feel grimmer, yet far more faithful to reality. This addition to his picture-book of haunting tales is no exception.
The Shape of Water follows the tale of a young woman without a voice who works as a cleaner in a military facility; she sparks connection with a captured aquatic creature that resides as an oddity and prisoner.
The Shape of Water is not just a look into those who are inherently born different, it is a harsh but relatable tribute to those who are missing a piece of themselves and their struggle to find it. These themes flow through every character and spill through the dialogue in countless layers – additionally the film explores the subject of discrimination and the hatred imposed on individual characters throughout the story; all of these intricacies work in unison and build towards a fantastically imagined tale about identity and moral complexity, exploring discrimination about one’s race, sex, species, disability, sexuality, creed, and lifestyle; nothing is left untapped.
Del Toro’s tendency to explore the loss of innocence and the distorting the idea of a normal life is scattered throughout his work; his film Pan’s Labyrinth (2010) takes the idea of a child’s bedtime story and reshapes it into something far darker and crueler, as real life truly is far more wretched and depressing than what a fairy-tale portrays, Del Toro understands this. For instance, in The Shape of Water he takes the image of an idealistic 1950’s family household and makes it feel explicit, slightly distorted, and un-family friendly all for the purpose of twisting that innocent image into a darker form.
This film is led by a fantastic cast – Sally Hawkins leads the film in an emotionally charged and spellbinding performance. She brings forth multiple emotional levels through the use of her physical body language and richly intricate emotional exchanges. She expresses so much in her interactions that you almost forget she doesn’t speak a word.
Michael Shannon is menacing – portraying the antagonist Colonel Richard Strickland who is just as merciless as he is sadistic; his unhinged and relentlessly unpredictable presence rapidly builds throughout the course of the film until his psyche begins to rot and fester in a variety of ways. Witnessing Shannon be the embodiment of a twisted and decaying psychopath is glorious. Audiences are also given a heartfelt and truly fantastic supporting role from Richard Jenkins who plays the best friend of our lead character, he is his own character with his own obstacles and you can really feel a sense of accomplishment as his character discovers new truths about himself. Octavia Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg both play small but fascinating roles that both have moral complexity – no character is left untouched.
This film flowed so well in so many ways, from its delicate scene transitions to its nail biting tension, Del Toro managed to effortlessly make this film feel seamless in its editing. The production design and makeup for the near entirely practical environment transported me into what felt like another world, something about the “picture perfect” view of the 1950’s makes the world seem surreal and off. The colors and sets were varied and all had a distinct retro feel to them and the makeup and costuming on the creature was layered with CGI in only certain areas, like its eyes, all the rest was a real man named Doug Jones in a real suit. Brilliant. This film had flavors of La La Lands’ camerawork, Pan’s Labyrinth production design, and Guillermo Del Toro’s unmistakable tone.
Flowing gracefully from its tantalizing visual storytelling, to its heart-pounding tension – The Shape of Water will submerge you in a dark fairy-tale of two kindred spirits and their connection beyond words – all without watering down its mature themes and sacrificing its vision.