Chew's Reviews - The Shape of Water

By Gary Chew | December 14, 2017 |

Opens in Sacramento area theaters on Friday, December 22  |

The Shape Of Water - - alone unto itself - - is a title that says so much, yet tells you nothing. It's only as Guillermo Del Toro's film concludes that you're able to fully comprehend what this achingly poetic title defines.

The tale goes back long before Jean Cocteau; and even into earlier history with Jeannie-Marie Leprince de Beaumont or Gabrielle-Suzanne Bardot de Villeneuve. But it's as fresh and relevant today as it was when all the variations on Beauty And The Beast began to proliferate.

It's the early Sixties in Baltimore. The Cold War is keeping society not cool. America and the Soviets are “loggerheading.” (Is that a word?) So how is it that a story about a mute, lonely woman who cleans and mops the toilets and floors of a highly-secured U-S government lab evolves out a fairy tale that was first published in 1790?

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is at her mundane tasks when she accidentally discovers a terribly classified secret has just arrived at the laboratory. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a harsh, authoritarian government agent, has traveled with the secret to Baltimore all the way from South America where it was caught: a fish-like creature in the shape of a tall, large human male, played by Doug Jones; no not that Doug Jones. The scaled creature is chained to and kept alive in a large vessel of water within a secured section of the lab. Strickland has an appropriate name. He's not merely strict, but vicious with those who offend him.

Shannon is always humongous on the screen. Among many examples, check out his performances in 99 Homes and Nocturnal Animals. Look for Shannon playing the old Cyril Cusack role of Captain Beatty straight out of Ramin Bahrami's next year re-make of François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 that originated with Ray Bradbury dystopian classic novel. Loving to hate Shannon's Strickland, as we did with Cusack's Beatty, will be yours to enjoy while watching The Shape Of Water, as Strickland is held responsible to an even darker, higher authority for the security of the human-like fish that, unlike a mermaid, has legs and feet.

The creature has certain qualities that make it a top priority for the U-S to not let the Soviets learn of its existence. The grotesquely scaled being is intelligent to an extent that it demands the government, in league with the military, study him and/or conduct experiments. The beast may possess some kind power to heal itself and others.

Covertly, Elisa sees how some of the lab techs – and especially Strickland – punish and torture the creature. She's a loving, naïve woman. These observations shock her. She then sneaks to the beast in solitary moments, trying to soothe, feed and teach it to communicate. The inability to speak makes her heartening and gracious efforts movingly ironic. Sign language instruction ensues.

Del Toro has also allowed for two other quite curious characters in his script: Zelda, who toils beside Elisa. That part is brought to life by the superb and so popular Octavia Spencer. The second role is of a marine biologist at the lab known as Dr. Hoffstetler. Michael Stuhlbarg is this enigmatic scientist. He wears suspicious-looking spectacles. Stuhlbarg was the lead in the Coen Brothers' excellent film A Serious Man. That won Stuhlbarg an Oscar nomination for Best Male Actor in 2010.

But in The Shape of Water, for my money, Richard Jenkins, playing Giles, stands out … just after Ms. Hawkins' startling and unforgettable performance. Jenkins has it: the voice for the narration and the talent for just plain fabulously acting a great part. Giles and Elisa are best friends and confidants. They live just across the hall from one another in a creepy apartment complex that sits on top of an old movie house – still in business – that “loudly” and vertically displays its name just outside. “Orpheum,” it says. Giles is an artist trying to get with how the future will be in terms of what advertising agencies of the Sixties are seeing it for their clients. Giles isn't starving yet, but could be … in the future.

On the sly, Elisa and the fish man reach a fully developed personal relationship. Then Elisa learns that, taking in the dissimilar motives of Strickland and Dr. Hoffstetler (actually a Soviet spy), the future for her beast is nothing but bleak. She's determined to set him free.

After much persuading, Giles aquiesces and gives Elisa a hand in smuggling the beast from the lab and into the bathtub back at her apartment above the Orpheum. (Reminder: this is a fable.) What follows are the furor and deceit of Strickland and Hoffstetter, not in tandem, to halt this friendly kidnapping.

Water is a work of art. It makes you laugh. As well, it creeps you out with the fish man, and causes you to wonder just how grisly things are going to get. All the while, Del Toro is relentlessly setting you up for a moving message about how special it is to have the capacity for accepting others ... no matter how great the differences might be between you and them.

I can't imagine Del Toro's picture not becoming overloaded with special accolades of all shapes and sizes. The cast is probably the best one that could be found to do these parts. Sally Hawkins was fabulous in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine. I've never seen Shannon in a film that he didn't almost own. Richard Jenkins strikes me as one of film's finest male actors since first seeing him in the astounding HBO series, Six Feet Under, in which he plays the phantom father (dying in the very first episode) of the dysfunctional Fisher family that makes a living taking care of people who've just died.

The Shape Of Water is the best new film I've seen this year. Only a few remain to be seen in order that an educated decision be made about 2017. As it's been a year “enabled” to escape being over-burdened by memorable, stimulating motion pictures, I'm happy here ... now leaning on 2018 ... that Del Toro has again weighed us down wit h his brilliance. You go, Guillermo.

Copyright © 2017 by Gary Chew. All rights reserved.


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