Since first beginning his career in 1993, director Guillermo del Toro has consistently proven to be a visionary director with an eye for visual flare and captivating stories. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, del Toro started making films at age eight with only his dad’s Super 8 camera and a few action figures. As he got older, he began directing larger scale films ranging from mainstream action to dark fantasy. While some of his more recent films like “Crimson Peak” have left fans underwhelmed, del Toro’s new film “The Shape of Water” has once again put him on the map as one of the most creative directors of the decade. With its beautiful cinematography and set design, phenomenal performances and haunting score, there’s no doubt that there’s plenty to enjoy about this bizarre love story.
Set in America in 1962, the film tells the story of a mute cleaning woman named Elise Esposito (Sally Hawkins) who works the graveyard shift at a top secret research facility along with her close friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). While cleaning one night, Elise meets a human-like fish creature (Doug Jones), who was brought to the facility following his discovery in South America to be studied for potential use against the Soviets. As the story goes on, Elise falls in love with the creature in a strange twist on the tale as old as time and must fight to save him from the hands of the villainous Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).
As expected of a Guillermo del Toro movie, “The Shape of Water” is filled with beautiful use of color and contrast; the film’s depiction of an inner city Baltimore neighborhood is wonderfully lit with green lighting and neon colors, while Colonel Strickland’s suburban home is colored a contrasting orange. The set design is equally impressive, providing possibly the greatest example of del Toro’s contemporary-fantasy-style yet. Every single set, from the wooden, Victorian apartments to the minimalist sci-fi research facility, feel like they span both the past and the future without feeling out of place. Complementing these sets is a haunting score by Alexandre Desplat, which makes use of slightly muted sound design to capture the feeling of being underwater. From a purely technical standpoint, “The Shape of Water” is an incredible feat that easily stands among del Toro’s best.
But of course, visuals aren’t everything. If all “The Shape of Water” had to offer was a few pretty colors, I’d be bored out of my mind throughout its two-hour runtime. Fortunately, “The Shape of Water” doesn’t get bogged down by its design. The story, on top of being incredibly strange and creative, is also very well-paced, never feeling unnecessarily long. The dialogue, while sometimes sounding overly poetic, is well-written, and the performances from all the main actors are convincing and entertaining to watch. Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer’s characters are especially interesting, as the film hints that the talkative Zelda uses the mute Elise as therapy for her frustrations.
Even though “The Shape of Water” gets so much right, it’s still far from a flawless experience. My biggest issue with the film is the way del Toro chose to characterize the villain (Colonel Richard Stricken). The character couldn’t help but feel cheesy during a lot of his screen time. It’s as if del Toro comprised a list of every single bad thing a person could possibly be and then forced it all into Sticken’s dialogue without making any effort to develop it. Some of Sticken’s lines are racist and sexist, and in one scene he almost commits sexual assault. However, these actions are only brought up once or twice, in throwaway lines or single scenes in an attempt to force the audience to hate Stricken with no real relation to the plot. And while some may argue that Stricken’s unrealistically evil behavior is a stylistic choice to fit with del Toro’s fairytale-like story, I can’t help but feel that the character could have been much more believable if these aspects were properly developed.
The film also has a couple of moments which, while not completely taking me out of the experience, still seemed pretty unbelievable. In one scene, a character is able to completely fill a bathroom with water just by sticking a towel under the crack of the door. How would a single towel make the bathroom mostly airtight? What about the cracks along all sides of the door? Wouldn’t it take several hours to completely fill a room with water? Fortunately, moments like these aren’t too common, and often nothing that happens in the movie is above the average suspension of disbelief that films usually ask.
“The Shape of Water” is a film that I can only describe as unique. Everything about it is so utterly original and creative that it’s incredibly refreshing to watch after so many boring, run-of-the-mill action and superhero flicks. Even with its few flaws, the gorgeous set design, superb cinematography, stellar performances and unconventional story make this wonderfully strange sci-fi romance film a joy to watch. Since the film has been released on DVD on Amazon Prime and iTunes as of March 13, there’s no better time than now to experience one of the best films of last year.