In the world of dark fantasy films, Guillermo del Toro is one of the genre’s true masters.
Whether he’s adapting comic-book fare (Hellboy, Blade II), spinning a haunted-house tale (Crimson Peak), or infusing historical events with Gothic horror (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone), del Toro has a knack for filling every pore of his films with a potent, palpable blend of dread and wonder. That continues to hold true in The Shape of Water, an uncanny fairy-tale romance filtered through the lens of del Toro’s uniquely dark, and often surreal cinematic vision.
Directed by del Toro from a script he co-wrote with Game of Thrones writer Vanessa Taylor, The Shape of Water chronicles the relationship that develops between mute janitor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and an amphibious, humanoid creature (Doug Jones) imprisoned at the government facility where she works. When the creature’s life is threatened by a cruel government agent (Michael Shannon), Elisa sets into motion a complicated and dangerous rescue plan with some help from a co-worker (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor (Richard Jenkins).
Del Toro wisely establishes a sort of dreamlike quality early on in the film, and it serves the story well in blurring the border between its painfully real 1960s, Cold War setting and the weirder, supernatural elements at play. Much like his past films, this one isn’t afraid to explore some dark places with its human and nonhuman characters, and del Toro does an impressive job of making the former just as frightening as the latter (and often more so).
Hawkins is amazing to watch, and her character’s inability to speak doesn’t hamper her in the slightest when it comes to conveying subtle, important emotional moments that might have been lost in lesser performances. Already an Academy Award nominee for her supporting role in 2013’s Blue Jasmine, Hawkins makes a strong case for another Oscar nod with the range she shows in The Shape of Water without vocalized words.
A similar compliment can be paid to Jones, the actor responsible for making so many of del Toro’s creatures memorable over the years.
Jones’ merman-like character is more feral than the similarly aquatic Abe Sapien he played in both Hellboy movies, but as usual, he imbues the character with so much soul that it feels all too human in the ways that matter most in developing a connection with the audience. It isn’t an Oscar-level performance on par with Hawkins’ work in the film, but it’s an excellent reminder that Jones might be the best physical, on-screen creature actor in Hollywood right now.
As the film’s antagonist, Shannon is a menacing presence that expands to fill every scene he’s in, able to terrorize with a mere glance and always hinting that no matter what terrible things his character does on camera, something far more dangerous is simmering under his skin. It’s a good role for Shannon, if a bit one-dimensional, but makes for some truly entertaining villain moments.
Sadly, Spencer and Jenkins both feel a bit underutilized in their roles — particularly when it comes to Jenkins, whose closeted commercial artist has a few compelling moments that begged for more exploration, but likely would’ve strayed too far outside the film’s primary narrative. It makes sense that we don’t get to see more of his character’s story, but what Jenkins does give the audience is compelling stuff. Michael Stuhlbarg also gives the audience a character that seems bigger than his supporting role as a troubled scientist, and makes a character that could’ve easily been forgettable into something considerably more interesting.
If there’s one prevailing flaw in The Shape of Water, it’s the film’s lack of unexpected moments.
Much of the movie unfolds exactly as one might expect, following a narrative path that feels entirely familiar all too often. It never strays far from the typical “protagonist saving a captive creature” formula that we’ve seen countless times before in other films, and meshes that narrative with the usual romantic drama tropes that we’ve come to expect from films about star-crossed lovers whose lives seem separated by various factors — in this case, a sinister government agency and their respective species.
The lack of surprises doesn’t detract much from the film’s overall impact, though, and the tale that del Toro and his talented cast tell is a tremendously entertaining one. Despite all of the familiar tropes it relies on and the expected turns it takes, The Shape of Water still manages to feel unique thanks to impressive performances by its cast, a deeply sympathetic approach to the characters, and the sort of beautiful visuals that are a hallmark of del Toro’s projects.
The Shape of Water is a familiar fairy tale, but in the hands of its storytellers, it’s a tale well told.
This article was originally posted on Digital Trends
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