The Shape of Water (aka Cold War Project) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Guillermo del Toro deserves a lot of credit as a genre director that can immerse the viewer so deep into his world that we find ourselves invested in its characters and beauty. Consider the premise of The Shape of Water, a bloody romance between a mute woman and a fish monster that connect mentally and sexually. To describe the film in such a way may conjure up hilarity for the visual or eye-rolling for taking the absurdity seriously. And yet del Toro is able to achieve the seemingly impossible, crafting a touching tale of romantic monster love where a woman gets freaky with a scaley creature.
Another pleasing aspect is how del Toro can play with visuals so well. When we first see the apartment of our protagonist, it’s staged in such a way that you’d believe it took place in France or Italy before she exits the building to reveal she lives in Baltimore during the Cold War. The apartment belongs to Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute that works on the janitorial staff of a secret government laboratory. While mopping up some blood and a finger, she discovers a prisoner of the lab; a humanoid amphibian played the always-a-monster actor Doug Jones. He doesn’t speak but that’s okay. They seem to connect just fine over eggs and jazz. It isn’t long before love blooms, an escape is hatched and a weird love scene happens in her bathtub.
Much like Guillermo del Toro’s previous films, The Shape of Water dances around blending genres, fusing a monster romance with a bigotry allegory, brutal displays of blood, and a spy picture. Sometimes it’s a monster movies with a classicly creepy soundtrack that fits the era. Sometimes it's a terrifying horror film, complete with a finger dug into a bullet wound. And sometimes it’s a genuine tale of empathy and understanding, where the kindly and closeted gay next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) can relate to Sally and her relationship with a boyfriend that lives in her bathroom.
Chasing the monster is the sinister Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), embodying the darker aspects of the American dream that snarls and gnashes against anyone who goes against him. He favors a heavy sense of patriotism and family values that seem threatened as much as he was by the monster, leaving him with a gross wound that only gets worse. Octavia Spencer does a superb job as Elisa’s best friend who can do all the dishing and giggle for her while giving a firmer swat to be confident. Michael Stuhlbarg plays a Russian spy that also learns some empathy as his mission quickly turns form infiltration to one of love.
While The Shape of Water is very unorthodox and entertaining in its own genuine and weird ways, it’s far from Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece. While del Toro tends to have a firmer hand with genre-splicing, he plays a little bit too loose with the material here that bounces into almost cartoonish territory. Michael Shannon, in his usual fashion, plays a villain so over-the-top that I almost expected him to froth at the mouth as he bitterly points a gun into the face of Octavia Spender. Richard Jenkins does an ample job of weaving his homosexuality into the narrative, but I couldn’t help feel he connected better with the monster, considering an infatuation he has with a diner waiter goes south quick. I’ve also heard tell from gay acquaintances that no gay man would be so forgiving of a monster that ate one of their cats.
Despite the highest praise of the movie winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, pushing the appeal of the film into the overrated category, I ultimately dug The Shape of Water for the experience and del Toro’s never-fail visuals. The shot of a naked Hawkins and a creature-suited Jones copulating in a flooded bathroom is a dazzling sight, so beautiful and engaging that I never found myself questioning how a makeshift aquarium in an apartment could stay so stable. There’s also a daringness with a script not afraid to talk about monster penises and racist figures, to such a bold degree for pushing up the audacity of the picture. Whatever unevenness present is balanced by a fearlessness, one that makes the odd romance all the more fun.