2017 has been an impressive year. From the beginning of the year, we’ve been given high quality films that have blown me away one after another. Early releases like Get Out and Logan combined multiple genres to create masterpieces in the Spring, while Baby Driver and The Big Sick perfected their genres to keep the quality going through the Summer. Fall rolled around, awards season kicked off, and movies like Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri continued to make 2017 an unforgettable year. With so many great films spread out across a single year, I was sure the best had come and gone. But then I saw The Shape of Water. Part of it may be that I’m writing this review too promptly after seeing the movie, so I’m on a little bit of a high. But more than anything else, I just saw a film that plays to all the senses in what is probably the most memorable movie-going experience of the year.
The Shape of Water tells the story of a mute cleaning lady named Elisa. Elisa works at a secretive government facility, scrubbing toilets and cleaning up after scientists. After a new project is brought in for testing, Elisa becomes curious after catching a glimpse of this mysterious, humanlike, amphibian creature. In secret, Elisa befriends the creature, relating to him through her muteness. The facility, however, is run by the tyrannical Dr. Strickland, who sees the creature only as a way to improve his reputation. After discovering Strickland’s intent to kill the creature, Elisa decides to try to break her friend free with the help of her neighbor.
In a movie with as many different moving pieces as The Shape of Water, I’m always cautious not to spend too much time talking about a single thing. That being said, that is exactly what I’m going to do with talking about the acting in this movie. Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, giving easily the best performance of her career. With her character being mute, Hawkins had the simultaneous handicap and opportunity to create a character with personality and emotions simply through body language and limited subtitled dialogue. It’s pretty incredible to watch Hawkins in every scene, as she displays a confidence, passion, and sometimes a brilliant feigned timidity. There are several different dynamics to Hawkins’ character, and watching her create them all is a treat.
The supporting cast of the film is equally outstanding. Octavia Spencer is her typical, fantastic self as Elisa’s coworker. Michael Shannon takes the villainous role of Dr. Strickland, approaching the part with a certain intensity that only Michael Shannon is capable of. Even smaller, significant roles like Michael Stuhlbarg’s contributed to the incredible ensemble of performances. Easily the best of the supporting cast, however, is Richard Jenkins, playing Elisa’s insecure neighbor. Elisa’s story is the main focus of the film, but it is probably Jenkin’s character who we feel the most emotion for. While it’s a well-written character, nearly all the credit is due to Jenkins for his endearing and purely lovable performance.
There are countless elements which contribute to The Shape of Water being the outstanding film that it is. Perhaps the single most effective thing, however, is the atmosphere which was created in the film. Guillermo Del Toro does some brilliant directing during the expository part of this movie in the first half, using montages and rhythms to show Elisa’s life, both as a cleaning lady and as a mute. Del Toro put the pieces together brilliantly, but the construction of those pieces in creating the look, sound, and feel of The Shape of Water is what is truly special. Alexandre Desplat’s musical score is catchy, beautiful, and utilizes themes brilliantly. Dan Lausten’s cinematography is beautiful and thoughtful, particularly with the underwater filming. But the biggest players, however, are easily Paul Austerberry and Nigel Churcher in the film’s art, production, and set design. The Shape of Water is a visually striking film, and very few of the most visually striking moments utilize visual effects. This film is brilliantly designed, creating sights and sounds that will stick with you, contributing to an incredible experience.
The best thing about the sensory experience of this film is that while it is bold and memorable, it is consistent. Such consistency is vitally important in this film since the second and third acts of this story take bold steps in the narrative that are often and always unexpected. The focus of the story is often directed on characters who we don’t expect to be interested in, but come to be favorites of ours because of what Del Toro does with them. And the thing he does with them; well, they’re something else. Conceptually, there are very few people who would be willing to go along with this story, but Guillermo Del Toro tells it to us in a way that keeps you not only on board, but anxious for the next thing to happen.
This review is admittedly vague, mostly because the most brilliant elements of this story require spoilers to discuss. What I can tell you, however, is that you will be entertained when you watch this film. Visually, this movie completely sucks you in, leaving you with images and ideas that will stick with you for some time. And while this story is wild, the performances and directing have you enthusiastically going along with every single thing Guillermo Del Toro throws at you. This film is intense, vulnerable, intricate, beautiful, and a masterpiece that is totally unforgettable.
I give The Shape of Water an 8.9/10.