‘The Shape Of Water’: An Elegant Fable Of Starfish-Crossed Lubbers
Enlarge this photo toggle caption Kerry Hayes/Fox Searchlight Kerry Hayes/Fox Searchlight
The entire year before he won an Academy Award for developing and building the puppet star of E.T., Italian special results artist Carlo Rimbaldi created a much more frightening creature – minus the light-up center, plus tentacles – to possess simulated sex with Isabelle Adjani in the psychological horror film Possession, a motion picture that probably purchased fewer lunchboxes and plush playthings.
THE FORM of Water, the latest R-rated fairy tale from Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro, offers a sense of what might spawn if those two Rimbaldi feature-creatures were to mate. The Spielbergian gentleness wins out, by a lot, producing for a hybrid that’s just a little too cuddly to fee with The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s twin masterpieces. I wish his brand-new film had spent at least a little time staying frightening before it phased into aching and swooning; using its lush evocation of longing amid gleaming midcentury diners and cinemas and Cadillacs, SoW sometimes feels like The Carol of the Dark Lagoon. But it’s a transporting, lovingly built specimen of escapism – whether it’s possible for a motion picture that depicts a powerful creep blithely abusing women in the place of work to count as escapism – and quickly the strongest of del Toro’s seven English-terminology features, though it spin-kicks not as much vampire butt than Blade II did. To place yourself in GDT’s hands, as he tells the type of history he tells better than anyone else, is a rich satisfaction.
Del Toro has been making movies about monsters (human and otherwise) and legends for a good generation now, and THE FORM of Water feels like an attempt to distill those grand subjects into something awards voters and audiences who found Pan’s Labyrinth just too sad to bear can easily embrace. It’s a sweet-natured (and explicit, though certainly not exploitative) romance between Elisa, a mute janitor at a top secret federal government laboratory (Sally Hawkins, whose mostly silent performance continues to be among the year’s virtually all dimensional) and the sensitive, intelligent amphibi-guy being placed captive there. She plies him with hard-boiled eggs and Benny Goodman data, proving that it really does take all kinds, and eventually teaches him to talk to her in sign terminology. Inside the fish-fit is certainly Doug Jones, an actor who’s done soulful job beneath masks and makeup in many del Toro movies – Abe Sapien, his figure from the director’s two comic-book-derived Hellboy movies, is an amphibian, too.
Anyway, these star-and-species-crossed fans must evade the snarling G-guy Strickland (Michael Shannon, in full Zod mode), who’s under orders to learn whatever he may from “the asset” and then dispose of it. Del Toro, who collaborated on the screenplay with Vanessa Taylor, offers set the history in the Marvel Years – the early ’60s – with the news packed with cops bludgeoning civil rights marchers and Hueys in the skies over Vietnam. Much like Peter Jackson’s underrated 2005 remake of King Kong, adoration of showbiz and cinema oozes from SoW’s every gill: Elisa’s house is certainly above a grand cinema that shows Cinemascope extravaganzas like The Tale of Ruth. When del Toro follows up a crisply executed action sequence with a black-and-white dance number, anyone who determined La La Territory too precious will probably reach inside their handbag of tomatoes. (It take me no happiness to report that it is not Jones, but somebody called Edward Tracz, who performs the dance in the fish-suit.)
The movie will probably catch some flack for valuing Sally’s perspective over the supporting players, but fairy tales usually do not be ensemble stories. Octavia Spencer performs Zelda, her best friend at the laboratory, while Richard Jenkins is certainly Giles, her closeted roommate. (He’s an illustrator by trade, blackballed by his ex – advertising organization for gayness or drunkenness or both.) Spencer and Jenkins have each played parts like these before. In Hidden Figures, Spencer embodied Dorothy Vaughn, the real-life math whiz who became NASA’s first African-American manager, which makes it a drag to discover her back the same period as a washing lady.
To the movie’s credit, Zelda and Giles both possess inner lives and the chance to make choices that drive the history, as does Michael Stuhlbarg, participating in a scientist of murky loyalties. Del Toro creates a point of proficiently noting the sexual patterns and frustrations of his major personas: Strickland keeps his shirt and tie on, Don Draper-style, and urges his wife to keep calm while he discharges his husbandly tasks. Ew. Jenkins crushes on the proprietor of a near by diner, purchasing slice after slice of sub-par pie, while Spencer laments a now-expired “pet magnetism” (her terms) saddled her with an inert husband who isn’t damn good. Without receiving all prurient about it, Sally appears to be the most fulfilled among them actually before she invites the Aqua-Man to her Hall of Justice.
Nothing else that occurs will probably surprise you; that isn’t del Toro’s game. In interviews he takes pains to tell apart inevitability – the province of testimonies that echo once again down through generations and cultures – from predictability. Sure, Charm and the Beast may have been the year’s most important inevitability in commercial terms – but that’s merely the sink-or-swim market place. In its maturity and originality, THE FORM of Normal water leaves that various other tale of benign bestiality in its wake.