When I lived in Hollywood I’d occasionally stop in at a cafe that was frequented by Guillermo del Toro. There were always tales of Guillermo sightings before he would go back to his office across the street. Everyone knew that the great Spanish Director of Pan’s Labyrinth was cooking up something good and The Shape of Water was well worth the suspense.
This morning I was listening to NYC news on internet radio and during the entertainment report just about every other new release for this week was mentioned: Perfect Pitch 3, The Greatest Showman, Jumanji 2 but not The Shape of Water. I think this is mostly because its premise is so absurd on its face that it’s not considered mainstream. Yet the film is inspired by the 1954 classic, Creature from the Black Lagoon. That said, The Shape of Water takes an original spin and is unafraid to deal with aspects of sexuality that society in general feels uncomfortable seeing portrayed on-screen. Not only that, as a period piece from 1961, it calls out segregation and fear of the other — of anyone or even in this case anything that is different. It’s ironic that The Greatest Showman is about the circus itself and yet The Shape of Water has more in common with Tod Brownings edgy 1932 big top classic Freaks than Jackman’s sanitized vehicle.
With some incredible special effects The Shape if Water is unfettered in its ability to go deep into fantasy, early on paying homage to Dorothy’s ruby slippers and later a full blown black and white Golden Age of Cinema musical number. And like Dorothy, the amphibious creature will do a song and dance here and now but knows that ultimately there is no place like home.
Octavia Spencer, as Zelda D. Fuller, here easily slings the best laugh out loud zingers of 2017. However, as D. noted after the film, her character disappears for a large chunk and then sputters out at the end. Though I will say that the main characters all do have multidimensional lives and concerns. We follow the mute protagonist Elisa’s (an Oscar nomination worthy performance by Sally Hawkins) only friend, Giles (the masterful Richard Jenkins who was incredible in the vampire thriller Let Me In) get rejected from a big illustration gig and then also, in humiliating fashion, from a possible romance. We also follow Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, star of the Coen Bros. A Serious Man), his intrigue with Moscow lackeys and his personal conflict in putting science over politics. Then there is government contractor Strickland, who captured and hates the creature. He wants to eviscerate amphibious man before the scientists even get a chance to fully examine him. Strickland is played by Micheal Shannon in what has to be one of his greatest performances. It. Is. Creepy. Shannon made me squirm and alternately made my stomach turn in every other depraved scene he is in. He makes the audience ask, “Who is the real monster here?” Ironically Strickland wants to kill the one thing that could save him.
Thematically, the film resembles E.T. as a misunderstood being with unimaginable powers is tossed around a lab like a frog in Freshman Bio. Aesthetically, the film draws from Amélie and City of Lost Children with its stylized camera set-ups and movements, oxidized color palette and steampunk sensibility.
The general openness of this film will play much better worldwide than here in the States, where it can’t even make the entertainment section on the radio. However, I think it will become a cult classic and be appreciated when all the other more commercial titles from this week are long gone and forgotten. The Shape of Water gave me chills and may even have opened my mind…just a little.