THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) Review: A Masterpiece that I Wish I Liked More

The Shape of Water

When I first saw the trailer of “The Shape of Water”, I was blown away. It was sweet, heartwarming, and weird at the same time. It is a fantasy love story with a premise that might have so often appeared in one film or another: an unlikely romance between human and non-human. This is actually a typical premise background for director Guillermo del Toro, who is so dedicated and obsessed to monsters and fantasy creatures on films. But “The Shape of Water” seemed different: there’s a nuance of classic in the trailer, something to do with old songs and bleak color pallete. And Sally Hawkins (!), as a mute lady in love with the creature, is a perfect round-up that leads me into an overanticipation towards this film.

Alas, I didn’t learn enough to realize that overanticipation, most of the times, results in dissapointment. In the case of “The Shape of Water”, it kind of rings true.

The Shape of Water

The setting and the characters are all perfect. It was in the 1960s, a time of Cold War between USA and Russia. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), who is the mute lady I mentioned before, works as a janitor with Zelda (Octavia Spencer) in a secret research facility owned by the US government. One day, both of them were instructed to clean the laboratory where a ‘most sensitive asset ever to be housed in the facility’ was kept: an amphibian man (Doug Jones) that kind of reminded us to Abe Sapien of “Hellboy”. This creature was strictly supervised by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and Professor Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg): Colonel Strickland is more of a violent man who often abuses the creature, while Professor Hoffstetler with his science background is more patient and protective to it. Although considered a secret, the laboratory was easily accessed by the janitors. In her curiosity, Elisa tried to interact with the creature. However, this interaction eventually becomes a romantic relationship between them, leading to a mission to escape the creature out of the facility.

You can tell from the first scenes that, although (like I said) the premise have been so often used in many other films before, “The Shape of Water” is not just another fantasy love story. From the appearance only, “The Shape of Water” is already a unique, swoon-worthy film with nods to classic musical films, intelligently provoked by Alexandre Desplat’s swinging score and Dan Laustsen striking shots. But deeper than just the appearance, “The Shape of Water” is about the universality of love. I really praise how director Guillermo del Toro (who also wrote the screenplay for the film with Vanessa Taylor) translated ‘love’ to be both ‘freeing’ and ‘sensual’. There is this bold comparison between Elisa, who struggled to get the creature out of the facility, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is a gay-closeted old man living next door: one was striving for her love, while the other was just giving in. To make it all more vivid, del Toro didn’t mind to flesh out the sexual aspect of this love theme. Even in the first few minutes of the film, we can see our leading female character fully naked, masturbating in her bathtub as a part of her daily routine. Remember as well how Elisa and the creature’s first interaction was through a boiled egg (Elisa’s meal), it may also be seen as a strong symbolism of the sexual perspective of love.

The Shape of Water

All of these subtexts will never be truly established without the power of the cast. Sally Hawkins gave yet another sublime performance in “The Shape of Water”. Despite her shy persona off-screen, I think she is one of the working actresses today who always keeps on upping her own game on-screen. Portraying a mute character in this film, she just did everything so beautifully with her careful gestures and saying-it-all facial expressions. There is this edgy kind of beauty that only she owns, and that really adds up to the Beauty-and-the-Beast nuance of the film (she’s the ‘Beauty’, of course!). The rest of the cast is just okay—I mean they are all just sufficient for their parts. Richard Jenkins is wonderful, as always, and he really lived up as a comparison to Elisa in terms of the striving-for-love subtheme. I actually worried with Octavia Spencer, who in this film portrayed just another African-American working wife with all her stereotypes. I mean, I don’t want her to be a stereotyped actress! (I think in “Snowpiercer” she did quite an amazing job for a small but challenging role unlike most roles she did before). Michael Shannon is just a perfect villain with his violent and uncompromosing character, while Michael Stuhlbarg, well, just did another Stuhlbargian role he might be destined to.

Up until this paragraph you may all question, “Well, with such praises like this, how could ‘The Shape of Water’ disappoint you, Akbar?” Here’s the part I’ll answer such question. You know, I try to visit this film the second time to prove if it all just because of my own overanticipation or this film really lacks something in some way. And I think I prefer the latter. While “The Shape of Water” did a really amazing job to hype up its subtexts, it does not run so well in terms of its main plot. I hate how the plot tried to pull the ‘usual thriller tricks’ around its second half. The characters were becoming so grunt and less reliable, and timing has become such an important amunition. I mean… it all just became so staged. The part starting from the actual release of the creature out of the facility into its natural habitat is really where everything becomes kind of spoiled so recklessly. Well I think it’s okay if the director wants to create some magical moments to make us feel emotional or whatever, but for me personally it kind of did the opposite.

The Shape of Water

So, yeah... that’s it. “The Shape of Water” is the masterpiece. Maybe it does not fulfil my own expectation, but perhaps it does for you. I wish it just went less formulaic, and I really wish I liked it more. Of course it is not bad at all, it just could do a little bit better. And still, you should really see this film. Try to see it between the lines and you’ll be surprised what a rich and beautiful film “The Shape of Water” is. Despite all those minor flaws, we should really thank Guillermo del Toro for bringing out his ideas about monsters and non-human creatures, and reshaping them into an art form that is so close and so relevant to our reality and humanity.

The Shape of Water

3.5 out of 5 stars

2017 / Adventure, Drama, Fantasy / 123 min / R

cast: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, et al.

screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
directed by Guillermo del Toro

Akbar Saputra

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