31 Days, 31 Movies 12/9: The Shape of Water
The write ups for the movies have backed up a little because I was recovering from a cold. I’ve watched the movies but haven’t had time to write them up, I’ll catch up this week.
Guillermo del Toro, best known as the writer and director of Blade II (I’m pretty sure I’m not missing anything there), has established a distinct aesthetic in his movies in recent years and has cemented himself as the maker of some of the most beautiful films around. 2015’s Crimson Peak, which I love more than I probably should—partly because I saw it with a woman I was nuts about at the time but also because even when del Toro doesn’t manage to produce a movie as critically lauded as Pan’s Labyrinth or now The Shape of Water it is enthrallingly beautiful. At points in Crimson Peak it seemed as though del Toro might have made of the movie solely for shots of deep red blood wash over untouched white snow. In The Shape of Water, del Toro finds a darkly quiet beauty in the setting of 1960s Baltimore.
The greatest fantasy stories use the vehicle the genre provides them to tell a grounded story; stories like Game of Thrones and Harry Potter and of course Pan’s Labyrinth. The Shape of Water is as much a movie about the human experience as it is about saving a fish man from a secret government laboratory. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito a mute janitor working the night shift in an ominous government facility for military purposes that are never exactly clear. Elisa is a creature of habit, she does the same thing and eats the same thing every night before work. She only ever interacts with two people Zelda, her work friend played by Octavia Spencer, and her next door neighbor, Giles, played by Richard Jenkins. Before the amphibian man shows up and throws Elisa’s whole world into chaos, del Toro does an immaculate job of crafting a world and characters that is staggeringly beautiful. The intent and love for cinema that del Toro puts into the opening sequence of the movie is enough to make The Shape of Water one of the best films of the year. In about five to ten minutes he tells us everything we need to know about these characters to believe that they would then risk their own lives to save this creature that everyone else around them seems to detest. The opening sequence is then punctuated by the arrival of Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, who is the black spot who throws this pristine painting out of whack. When Strickland walks in with his black suit and his black cow prodder and he fills the room with his presence and he stares right through people that was the moment I was hooked into Michael Shannon’s performance. I’ve never been a huge Shannon fan until this film, he is an actor who I think is in often decent or good movies but never seems to strike a chord with me; like in last year’s Nocturnal Animals I thought he was decent as Bobby Andes but certainly not as special as many seemed to believe him to be. But in true del Toro fashion the audience is given as much of his villain as they are of the main cast. Usually when films or TV does that it is to humanize them—think Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs it gets to the point at the end of the film when you’re rooting for Lecter to escape… with another man’s face on his. The time that del Toro spends with Strickland is only to make him more sinister and loathsome; the sex scene with his wife is one of the more upsetting in del Toro’s canon and it is done to such great effect.
The performances from top to bottom in The Shape of Water are fantastic; it is no surprise that veteran character actors like Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg come through with strong performances and as previously stated I think Shannon delivers his best performance to date. It was about halfway through this movie that I was reminded that Octavia Spencer—who is fantastic in this as always—has been afforded so few opportunities for roles as an actor that she had to be in Bad Santa 2 and Dinner for Schmucks. But it is Sally Hawkins who absolutely steals the movie. I am a terrible actor, I tried once, it was embarrassing, never again. But the prospect of having to communicate the range of emotions that Hawkins does in The Shape of Water with no dialogue would have sent shivers up my spine. There are moments in her performance that I found myself holding my breath I was so engrossed. There are many movies to come left in 2017, seems like all the movies are coming out at once actually but I will be surprised if anyone manages to top this performance.
Guillermo del Toro returns to the majesty and beautiful fantasy film making that he found so much success with on Pan’s Labyrinth. And with backing from an incredible cast, lead by a breathtaking performance by Sally Hawkins, del Toro has made his best movie yet.