Movie Review: “The Shape of Water” – Exploring Otherness

Written by Matt Butler February 28, 2018

the shape of water
The Shape of Water is hardly a revolutionary story. It’s Beauty and the Beast, but with a fish-monster (or, technically, Little Mermaid in reverse). It’s a story of otherness, set in a time when strangeness was synonymous with danger: The Cold War. Then again, when hasn’t that been the case? Maybe this tale as old as time is so revered because it is just that: timeless. Adding that special Del Toro magic doesn’t hurt either, and Guillermo might just be the perfect director for this breed of story.

Del Toro’s fondness for the fish-man fairy tale is obvious. It dates all the way back to his boyhood days of seeing Creature From the Black Lagoon. In regards to the film, Del Toro had a burning question: Why didn’t Kay (the leading lady, played by Julie Adams) end up with Gill-Man? (Ben Chapman on land, Ricou Browning underwater). The premise is a loving tribute to a simpler time in movies, but a complicated time in every other facet of life. As the rest of the film shows, for the rest of the world, things were far from simple. Set in the 1960s, The Shape of Water highlights racial tensions, patriarchy, homophobia, and of course, the Red Scare.

“He’s a wild creature. We can’t ask him to be anything else.”

While most of these issues have simmered far below paranoia level, the scariness of otherness remains prevalent. What makes Del Toro’s take on the story special though, what gives The Shape of Water its magic, is its warmth. With all these real-world issues at play, it’s easy for a story to bog itself down, to get high off its own drama. And while The Shape of Water isn’t devoid of darkness, it has enough wonderfully simple moments to resist that temptation.

the shape of water

Eliza’s relationship with The Asset (Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones, respectively), along with her friendship with Giles (Richard Jenkins), is The Shape of Water at its loveliest. Giles is a closeted homosexual. The Asset is a fish monster. It’s the chemistry between these three that scrapes away at their ever-present turmoil. It’s also aided by a steady script that gives us time and opportunity to discover the characters. I love how Giles’ homosexuality is made explicit at the same moment he is ostracized for it. It would have been easy to drop in a line like, “It’s hard out here for a gay man”, but no gay man speaks like that, especially in the 60s. It’s smart, and it endears me to Giles all the more.

“When he looks at me, the way he looks at me…He does not know, what I lack…Or how I am incomplete. He sees me for what I am, as I am.”

Standing in opposition is Strickland (Michael Shannon), Eliza’s boss and colonel for the US Government. He’s uncompromising, ruthless, aggressive, everything Michael Shannon was born to play. He’s also the most predictable element of the film and takes up more than his fair share of screentime. I guess, like Del Toro, I’m drawn to the Gill-man/woman love affair. I want to see every direction that relationship could go. Cutting back to Strickland every five minutes undercuts that. It’s a flaw, but it wouldn’t be worth mentioning if Eliza’s love for The Asset didn’t feel so true. This is Sally Hawkins’ strength as an actress. She’s naturally loving and easily lovable. Doug Jones is also no stranger to amphibious bodysuits, and he breathes the character, gills and all.

the shape of water

In short, The Shape of Water is lovely. Is it original? No. Is it effective? Yes. Is it as good as Pan’s Labyrinth? God, no. Is it the closest Guillermo Del Toro has gotten to the quality of Pan’s Labyrinth? Absolutely. Should you see it? What do you think…

My Rating: 8/10

the shape of water

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About Matt Butler

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is a strapping young English Major with a fiery passion for the art of cinematic storytelling. He likes long walks on the beach and knows the proper use of 'your' and 'you're'. (Example: I hope YOU'RE having a wonderful time browsing our site, and I hope you enjoy YOUR time reading my film reviews. I wrote them just for you.)

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