Monday, February 12, 2018

The Shape of Water (2017)

There's a wash of nostalgia in The Shape of Water that's applied so liberally by director and cowriter Guillermo del Toro that it's almost too much—but I think it's also a lot of what won me over. I went into it hoping for a monster movie that would make me cry, and that's more or less what I got. I knew I loved Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, which is somehow almost 10 years old now. Not surprisingly, she is great here too. Del Toro conceived the role of Elisa Esposito with her in mind. Elisa is mute but not deaf, an orphan who was found by a river. She works as a janitor. Hawkins studied film players such as Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, and Audrey Hepburn for the part, and she brings a tremendous amount of poise and power to the role and the movie. On certain obvious levels, The Shape of Water is pure movie entertainment hokum, maybe even a little more than I bargained for—closer to Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast than Universal's Creature From the Black Lagoon, and even closer to the musical Wizard of Oz, with its emotional whiplash, yearning desires for home, and song and dance numbers. The Shape of Water is set at the height of the Cold War—approximately 1960, as both Mr. Ed and Dobie Gillis make cameo appearances on various TV consoles in various living rooms. That period detail felt a little rancid to me, with the flashy Cadillacs, beehive hairdos, comfy diners, retro bigotry and such. But del Toro mostly buries it in shadows, with a lot of the movie taking place in a harsh underground facility or shabby apartments. It looks more like Being John Malkovich than Mad Men.

And the most affecting hits of nostalgia lean all the way back to the '30s and '40s. Elisa plays Benny Goodman records for the monster, for example. The monster is an amphibious human-sized creature captured by the American military somewhere in South America (presumably near Black Lagoon, wink wink)—the only name we hear for him is "the asset." The American military being what it is in Hollywood movies, they don't know what they have so they proceed to torture it to see what that gets them. Russians are also nosing around—part of the Cold War theme, with the subterfuge eventually turning into useful plot points. Michael Shannon once again plays an extremely bad guy and he's as good at it as ever. But he's very evil. And Elisa is very angelic. Then you remember: it's a fairy tale movie. It has excesses and actually they run in both directions. It's awfully saccharine awfully often—the monster is beautiful, so much so that at one point he causes a distracted driving accident. Much of that is the giant soulful eyes, but some is the tender rubbery lips of Mick Jagger. Otherwise it is scaly, gray, and sopping wet. The love story that develops between the monster and Elisa is gentle and beautiful, if you're in the mood for that kind of thing. If you're not, remember, Michael Shannon is coming for everything you love and that dude is just bad. We see a few of the terrible things he does. So there is often suspense and high tension around every corner. The Shape of Water sets a moderate pace and keeps it up all the way, with a nice batch of players. Besides Hawkins and Shannon, it also has roles for Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer. Doug Jones wears the fish suit. Among other things The Shape of Water is a useful reminder that fairy tales are not always for children. It even spends some time on racial issues—and not metaphorically related to the monster. It's pretty good.

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