Quick Hit: Filled with symbolism, imagery, and love, Mutie and the Beast will have you falling for a fish.
Guillermo Del Toro is one of those directors that everyone loves, but is rarely recognized by awards panels outside of the science fiction and fantasy movies. However, he has truly developed some masterpieces, and he now adds to this resume the fairy tell The Shape of Water. It follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who lives a lonely life of routine. She’s an outcast due to her disability, and surrounds herself with other outcasts like her gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her African-American best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). But everything in her life changes when Agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings “The Asset” (or the “Abomination”) back to the underground research facility where they all work.
Del Toro has always been a master of the period piece, but here he perfects it. 1950s/60s America looks just as it should – right down to the huge theatres playing Biblical epics about Ruth, and the huge concern being the Russians and the race to the moon. But it goes so much further than this – from the costume design to the consistent sound of past musicals, Del Toro has crafted a film that is as much in the past as it is about the past and our obsession with it.
It’s also a film about outcasts, as most fairy tales are in a way. Each character in this movie is different in their own way, and is dealing with their own struggles. Elisa obviously has her disability, but she also struggles with people considering her less than human. Giles struggles not only with his closeted sexuality in a world that isn’t ready to accept his lifestyle, but also with his current profession – in a world where photography is taking off, no one wants painted advertisements anymore. Even Strickland struggles with being a bit of an outcast. Though he is consistently doing things to “fit in”, like watching the right shows or driving the right car, Strickland has desires that go far past what is acceptable. For that he’s an outcast in the same way as everyone else.
All of this culminates in the ultimate outcast in a South American Amazonian fish-man (Doug Jones, hidden beneath beautiful layers of makeup and prosthetics), in an obvious throwback to Creature from the Black Lagoon. Everyone in the film attaches something to this creature, be it a way into the upper crust of society, or just a way to feel loved and human. This hits the audience members as well, particularly monster lovers like me. I’ve been very candid about my love and affection for monsters, and it’s a welcome breath of fresh air to see a movie like this. Here, the monster isn’t just a source of fear, like most horror monsters, or a source of simple, slapstick comedy and easy feels, like Gremlins or a Harry and the Hendersons. Here the monster is treated with respect and awe, and most of all love – not just from the character of Elisa, but from several characters, and most of all from the director.
Lest you not be confused – The Shape of Water isn’t just a love story. We also have nearly all the characters going through their own mini-movies, in some of the best drawn character arcs I’ve watched lately. No character is wasted or forgotten, and all eventually get their moment to shine. It’s also not just a character drama, but also features numerous bloody encounters, an increase in sexuality (mirrored perfectly by Elisa’s maturation and belief in herself), and an entire subplot dedicated to Russian spies. There’s so much going on in this movie, and it’s incredible that despite all of this, the movie never feels overstuffed or cramped.
I also haven’t touched on the visuals, which start off with a beautiful underwater sequence, and end the same way. The film presents shadows and light as characters in and of themselves, while also allowing each set piece to gain its own personality. In other words, the cinematography is beautiful. The score, composed by Alexandre Desplat, adds hints of intrigue to scenes while increasing the emotionality of others. It’s wonderfully understated, but it always hovers in the background, never allowing you to fully forget its presence, particularly when it chooses its moments to jump to the surface.
Above all the wonderful elements in the film stand the performances, led by Sally Hawkins. I enjoyed Octavia Spencer (as always), particularly in the scenes where she really is allowed to stretch a bit. I loved Jenkins, who allows the dialogue he is given to be both playful and sad. Shannon is good, if a bit of a caricature at times, but the intensity he brings is so deliberate that it wouldn’t surprise me if this was a decision by both director and actor on how he should be acted. After all, this is a character whose arc is mirrored by a dying appendage – not exactly a subtle character. But Sally Hawkins stands head and shoulders above the rest. Given the chance to be silent the whole film, her voice is rendered completely unnecessary by her body language and her facial expressions. There’s one scene that I continually come back to that features a discussion with Giles and Elisa in the hall – discussing her plans and why she has them. With Richard Jenkins lovingly and begrudgingly interpreting, Ms. Hawkins gives an Oscar worthy performance – and that’s just the dramatic scene. She’s also adept at using her body to portray the comedy of the situation in a Charlie Chaplin esque manner. She is positively wonderful, and even those who aren’t in love with monsters should fall in love with her.
Obviously now that I’ve written a thousand words on the subject, the rating seems a bit superfluous. But because I have to, I’ll go on record and write it down anyway. The Shape of Water is an “A+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"