The Shape of Water is a gorgeous achievement in film, one of the best of 2017, and one of Guillermo del Toro's finest.
We'll start with a paragraph that can apply to any of del Toro's films. It's damn beautiful. Every scene, every setpiece, every emotional beat, is dripping with so much character and vibrancy that it's impossible not to be enthralled from beginning to end. Every frame is a masterpiece, and beyond that, del Toro perfectly films each shot in interesting ways that always remain appropriate for the film's tone. It feels like a finely crafted adult fairy tale. It's like a less-steampunk version of Bioshock.
The casting is also brilliant for the roles. Sally Hawkins is the standout, as our protagonist, Elisa. I could not imagine anyone else doing better in this role. There wasn't a single scene, a single moment, where she wasn't perfect for what the film needs. I bought in completely.
The other cast members are equally well-suited for their roles. Octavia Spencer is excellent as the foul-mouthed, funny, and caring friend and coworker. Michael Shannon's villain, while a bit over the top, certainly gets the job done and drives many scenes of the film. Richard Jenkins is a delight, as he often is. And, of course, I've got to give some credit to Doug Jones as the monster. Everything else being great, the movie still doesn't work if the monster is unconvincing or silly, and he nails it.
Another standout, for me, is the score. The music is not only outstanding on its own, but actively enhances just about every scene. It never comes on too strong, it doesn't steal the show, it just gracefully supplements the on-screen action flawlessly. It's in-line with the setting, the themes, the tone, sentimental when it needs to be, and grandiose, orchestral, and sweeping during the more bombast moments. There were many moments while watching where I couldn't help but sit and smile at the gorgeousness of the film, and they were all moments where the score was in full-swing. It's perfectly appropriate for the film itself, and it's also a soundtrack that I wouldn't mind listening to on its own.
While I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the film, it wasn't without flaws:
The story is quite simple. If you've seen the trailer, you've seen the entire story outside of the final five minutes. Every plot point is easy enough to predict, and every scene plays out as expected (I understand that this isn't necessarily an objective flaw. There's of course nothing inherently wrong with 'simple' stories. I just prefer writing that's generally more enigmatic, I guess). That being said, the scenes also play out with so much beauty, and every setpiece and shot is so meticulously crafted that I'm 100% fine with going along for the ride.
Also, like most del Toro films, there's not much room for thought outside of the film. It gives you everything you need and more, delivers it on a silver platter topped with whipped cream, a million cherries, wrapping paper, and a bow for good measure. If you've seen a del Toro film, you know that he loves his metaphors and allegory. But there's a difference between simply putting this stuff in a film and letting the audience do some work to discover them (which, as a filmgoer, is often the most rewarding aspect of watching well-crafted movies), and repeatedly slapping you across the face with them. Again, is this an objective flaw? Certainly not. Just personal preference, so I'm not faulting it too much.
Lastly, the characters are cartoonish to the point where it feels like the movie is forcing you to feel certain ways, instead of provoking free thought. There's honestly a decent moral and ethical argument in here about the treatment of a creature like this, about how exactly to proceed knowing it possesses a clear intelligence. Instead, we get an over the top, one-dimensional, pure evil villain (another del Toro staple) along with protagonists who are basically too perfect, without any flaws whatsoever. I'm better about overlooking this half of it, as they are at least incredibly charming, and Sally Hawkins is prefect for the role. Listen, given this set up, it's not difficult - at all - to get us on the protagonist's side. Trust that Sally Hawkins as Elisa will get us there (she would have, easily). You don't have to twist the audience's arm and make her go up against despicable, irredeemable evil in Michael Shannon (who is also great) in order to get us there. Just tone it down with the shades of black and white that are layered on these people. It feels like we're being forced to feel a way that we would have anyway. At the end of the day, is it a big flaw? Not really (I've certainly spent way too much time talking about it for how small of a flaw it is, honestly). The movie is great despite this. It's just something I noticed here, and is also prevalent in his other films, so I thought it was worthy of mentioning.
I've spent too much time talking about flaws that really don't hurt the end product all that much. I think the movie is largely so beautiful and enjoyable that the few flaws stick out a bit more. The good elements of this are so great that I'd rather tell people to go see the movie to experience them, while the bad elements are so small and subjective that I feel like I'm obligated to explain them in more detail just to make it clear as to what I mean with my criticisms.
Make no mistake, The Shape of Water is an excellent, excellent film. One of my favorites of the year, and probably my favorite Guillermo del Toro work. I'd recommend it to anyone.
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