The Shape of Water Review
The Shape of Water marks director Guillermo del Toro’s return to the fantastical, and stars Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg. Eliza Esposito (Hawkins) is a mute woman working as a member of the cleaning staff at a 1960s American government facility. She and her friends Zelda (Spencer) and Giles (Jenkins) become entangled in a web of troubles when one Richard Strickland (Shannon) arrives at the facility with a government asset–the Amphibian Man (Jones). The film chronicles Eliza’s rescue of and romance with this creature against a background of Cold War espionage.
Hawkins’ performance as Eliza was easily one of my favorites this year. The depth of emotion and empathy she is able to convey without speaking a single word is truly masterful. Furthermore, her portrayal of Eliza’s infatuation with the Amphibian Man is fantastic; it begins as a burning curiosity, which develops into full-fledged caring and love as she spends time with the creature. Michael Shannon steals every scene he appears in. His Richard Strickland is the ideal image of the Cold War-era family man: he has a home in the suburbs with his wife and two children and believes himself to walk in the light of God (a point he makes painstakingly clear when he first meets with Zelda and Eliza). However, his drive to never fail borders on obsession, and he has a malicious streak a mile wide. Shannon oozes sinister sleaziness whenever he’s onscreen, whether he’s striking the Amphibian Man with an electric cattle prod or interrogating Eliza. Additionally, Strickland loses two fingers to the creature early on in the film. However, rather than go on with two missing fingers, del Toro makes the choice to have Strickland’s fingers sewn back on. Therefore, for the remainder of the film, Strickland has these two black, necrotizing fingers that other characters comment on frequently. This is a wonderful horror touch, and further emphasizes the repulsiveness of Strickland. Spencer and Jenkins both put in decent performances as Zelda and Giles, both of whom have character traits that play into a theme of loneliness in this film.
This theme rears its head multiple times throughout the film, namely through Eliza. As a mute woman, she is an outcast on multiple levels; obviously on a disability level, but also on a gender level. As the film is set in 1960s America, women are thought of as inferior to men. This becomes evident when Strickland says that humans are “made in the Lord’s image” when addressing Eliza and Zelda, but with the caveat of “Well, me more so than you.” This rings even truer for Zelda, as an African-American woman living in this time period. Furthermore, this loneliness manifests itself in Giles, who is revealed to be homosexual later on in the film. During the 1960s, Giles would be considered an “other” just as much as Eliza or Zelda. This hits home when he a restaurant owner bans him from the restaurant after daring to place his hand on the owner’s and say he would like to get to know him better. As such, the only companionship Giles really finds is in Eliza.
Additionally, the use of color in this film is intriguing. Teal and green shades suffuse the sets, particularly in the lab. In fact, teal and green are recurring colors in the film; from a Cadillac that Strickland purchases to the gelatin in Giles’ advertisement artwork, shades of green permeate this film. Because of this, the splashes of red that appear throughout the film really pop. Del Toro demonstrates this when Strickland loses his fingers; the scarlet of his blood is even more ghastly when contrasted with the green hues of the creature’s tank.
Speaking of the creature, the design of the Amphibian Man is fantastic. There is barely a hint of CGI in its design, save for maybe the way the creature’s eyelids flutter. His bluish-green skin with flecks of bronze fits with the color palette of the film. The Amphibian Man’s design echoes that of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The film addresses this parallel through a clever bit of set design. Eliza and Giles live above an old theater that is constantly showing films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Overall, this was a nice return to form for del Toro. I found his two previous films (Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak) to be underwhelming. This brings his superb use of the fairy tale to the forefront once again and follows in the footsteps of Pan’s Labyrinth in using allegory to address modern moral or political issues. I absolutely loved this movie, and would highly recommend it, especially if you are a fan of del Toro’s work.