****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****
My Rating: 4.65 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SEE IT IN THEATRE
The Shape of Water, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, tells the tale of Elisa, a mute janitor, and her relationship with a mysterious humanoid-amphibian creature being held in a secret government facility in Baltimore in 1962. The film stars Sally Hawkins and boasts supporting performances from Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlberg.
I had zero expectation when I went to see The Shape of Water. I really enjoyed director Guillermo del Toro's earlier film Pan's Labyrinth, which was a dark and hypnotic fever dream of a film, but had not ventured to see his more Hollywood friendly, commercial films like Hellboy or Pacific Rim, as they held no interest for me. All I knew of The Shape of Water was what I had seen in the trailer, which was that it was some weird inter-species romance movie. Having seen the film, I can attest that it is that…but it is also so much more.
The Shape of Water is a glorious film and is easily one of the best movies of the year. Director Guillermo del Toro has created a truly original and unique piece of cinematic art that drips with rich religious, political and mythological symbolism. Del Toro masterfully delivers a deliciously subversive take on an unconventional love story by paying homage to the storytelling conventions of Old Hollywood by turning them on their ear.
Del Toro is well-known as a visual virtuoso and The Shape of Water is no exception. His collaboration with Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen results in a cinematic symphony where nearly every shot could be hung in an art museum. Del Toro and Laustsen's delicate use of color and shadow create a lush texture for the film that is palpable. Laustsen's brilliant use of varying shades of green and a sparing but vibrant red do not just create a visual feast but also convey the deeper psychological and political sub-text of the film.
Del Toro also coaxes outstanding performances from his noteworthy cast. Sally Hawkins gives an exquisitely sublime and bravura performance as del Toro's mute leading lady. While Ms. Hawkins character Elisa never utters a single line of dialogue, she speaks volumes with her entire being, never wasting a single moment of screen time. Ms. Hawkins uses specificity and intentionality to imbue Elisa with a tangible yearning that is breathtaking in its earnestness and tenderness. To Hawkins (and del Toro's) great credit, Elisa is never reduced to a child-like state of innocence where the audience would pity her, but instead she is a capable and sexually aware full-fledged woman struggling to find her voice, which makes the film very topical if not downright prescient.
Richard Jenkins gives an absolutely magnificent performance as Giles, Elisa's friend and next door neighbor. Giles is at once both pathetic and defiant, ferocious and forlorn. Jenkins is a consistently fantastic actor and his work as Giles is a testament to his extraordinary talent, skill and commitment to craft.
The rest of the cast, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlberg and Michael Shannon all do exceptional work in their supporting roles. It is difficult to single one of them out above the others, but if forced to I would only mention that Michael Stuhlberg's work as Dr. Hoffstetler is a complex and subtle piece of genius that is a pleasure to behold. Stuhlberg is an often overlooked actor but he is devastatingly good.
Ms. Spencer and Mr. Shannon are two great actors as well and their work in The Shape of Water is, as always, stellar. Ms. Spencer is such a master craftswoman that her acting always feels like it is entirely effortless and so it is with her portrayal of Elisa's friend Zelda. And Michael Shannon, who plays Colonel Strickland, is like a volcano on screen, even when he is dormant, he emanates a dynamic combustibility that is unnerving. It was a true pleasure to watch such a superior ensemble work their magic in The Shape of Water.
The Shape of Water isn't just an entertaining and moving film, it also surreptitiously and masterfully comments on American capitalism, empire, Russo-phobia, McCarthyism, the feminine, love, psychological and spiritual evolution and the human urge to know God and thyself. (see Addendum below - warning it has spoilers in it). Del Toro and his superb cast are all able to tell multiple layers of the same story without ever being obvious or preachy. Watching the myriad of themes and layers of the film be expertly woven together is a joy to behold and makes for a compelling and magnetic movie going experience.
In the sea of cinematic brilliance that is The Shape of Water, what stood out to me the most though, is that this is a bit of a weird fantasy film, set in a different time period, and yet is pulsates with a genuine and tender humanity that is completely absent in other more contemporary and "reality-based" films like Three Billboards and Lady Bird. Those films are devoid of the true, genuine human experience that is the dramatic heart of The Shape of Water and that is a monument to the impeccable artistry of Guillermo del Toro and his superior cast.
In the final analysis, The Shape of Water is a lush and luscious film that is an artistic feast for the eyes and the psyche. This film speaks to both cinephiles and cine-peds (my new word for people with more pedestrian tastes in movies), I highly recommend you dive in deep into The Shape of Water and spend your hard earned money and invaluable free time to go see it in the theatre.
****WARNING: THIS ADDENDUM CONTAINS SPOILERS!!****
The spoiler free review is above, but I had written a few thoughts in an earlier draft on the deeper meaning of the movie and realized they may constitute a violation of my claim that this was a spoiler free review, so I figured I would excise them from the review and haphazardly share them in an addendum for those who were interested. If you haven't seen the film yet, and want a "virgin" experience, then skip the following sections entirely.
- The film's political and religious symbolism is there for those who wish to find it. The movie is again prescient in that it recalls the Russo-phobia of the early 1960's and the McCarthyist impulse which accompanies it and which is rearing its very ugly and dangerous head once again now. The film also subtly and gracefully reveals the moral rot at the core of American empire and American capitalism.
Del Toro masterfully exposes American capitalism as being a cancer on the soul of humanity (a great example is Colonel Strickland and his perfect yet loveless family and his new car which is green…with envy…and his hand which is gangrene…as he is, like America, rotting from within), and reveals the American dream to be the result of a fever that will eventually drown/suffocate us all. Like George Carlin says, "they call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe in it". In the case of The Shape of Water, in order to awake from the nightmare of the American dream, one must evolve, or maybe the better word for it is…devolve…and return to the depths of our truer selves where we live from our heart and can become gods.
- Not surprisingly due to the title of the film, the symbolism of water is throughout the movie. In a Jungian context, water is symbolic of the human psyche, and to dive into the deep waters is to explore our sub-concious. Keep this in mind whenever water is present in a scene in The Shape of Water. Understand that in order for the individual and the collective to evolve, dipping our toe into the pool of our minds is a must if we ever hope to dive into the depths of our deeper meaning and purpose. Integrating the knowledge found in the depths of our psyche occurs when we integrate with a creature from the depths. So in The Shape of Water, when Elisa is trying to understand the creature, she is really trying to understand herself. True integration…the melding together of the old knowledge with the new, occurs when Elisa and the creature have sex…in water.
Also note that Elisa is only connected to her sexuality in water…her ritualistic bath and masturbation are her "dipping her toe" into the pool of her psyche. It is also, in a religious sense, like going to Mass. But Mass is only a simulation of the God experience, when Elisa is in the water with the creature and they have sex, that is the ultimate integration/God experience. Only with the God experience can humanity and/or Elisa's psyche develop.
There are also obvious symbols of the creature being a Christ like figure. He has a wound on his side for example, and he is chained to a central spot, like a mandala, and is tortured and beaten by a guardian of the American/Roman Empire. The creature also has mysterious and miraculous healing powers for himself and others.
The egg is also is a pretty interesting symbol in the film. Obviously the egg is a symbol of fertility and birth, and also of the universe. Elisa feeding the creature her egg is symbolic of her offering her feminine energy to him, he devours it and integrates it and thus is not just a male, but like a god is both male and female. This is also why the question of his genitals comes up and Elisa explains that it is contained within him but is revealed at the right moment, almost like his body is a tabernacle and his genitals the god housed within.
If you look carefully throughout the film, you will see lots of religious Catholic symbolism. if you can, notice the shape and positions the characters are in when they are in water. There are mements when they look as if they are hung on a cross, or are in a Pieta pose.
Alright…those are just some brief and scattered observations on the film. I really loved the movie and I wholly encourage you to see it, or to see it again. If you do see it again keep your eye out for the when, where and how del Toro uses the color red and the color green. And also take note of water!!