Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Shape of Water

Baltimore, 1960’s. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a cleaning lady at a top-secret government agency. Needless to say, she is immersed in an environment of mystery and strange secrets that will require you top level clearance to access. Being mute, her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) serves as her voice, even though their job does not really require a lot of talking to begin with. Her homosexual neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is her confidante and best friend. When Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) drags in a water tank contents unknown all the way from South America, Elisa’s curiosity is piqued, even more so when she discovers that inside there’s a humanoid creature capable of non-verbal communication. Realizing how they share some similarities brought about by their uniqueness, the two form an unlikely bond. When she finds out that he is about to be killed and dissected for the name of science, she decides to make a stand, but can she really outwit a fully-equipped state facility on her own?

You don’t just get nominated for an Oscar. Unless you are Meryl Streep, then that kind of happens by default. For Hawkins, it must be that scene where she lobbies her case to Giles in an attempt to persuade him to rescue the sea creature. It is hard enough to come up with a convincing performance with words, what more when you don’t have that luxury? Accompanied with just a grunt and a whimper here and there, as well as solid eye contact and her hands, she lets you feel her desperation and determination at the same time. WITHOUT a single word. And isn’t that what acting is all about?

As far as the supporting cast is concerned, both Spencer and Jenkins deserve all the acting nominations coming at them. Both characters are the very definition of “supporting”. Most of the time they serve as Elisa’s voice for the mere fact that she cannot let hers be heard. In a world where she would otherwise be alone, she has found a strong support system in these two. The relationship is never one-sided, however. Elisa is there for Giles because he is just as alone as she is, while Zelda seems to find in her a purpose, like that of being the big sister that she never had.

Even Stuhlbarg delivers a strong performance despite the character’s flaws. And of course, how can we forget the big bad villain? Shannon is just so vile and repulsive, but one-dimensional he isn't. The incredible thing about the character is that it represents the American dream back in the the Cold War 60’s: the Cadillac car; the Stepford wife; the desire to move to the big city. On one hand you fear him because he is such a terrorizing presence. On the other hand he is also so menacing because he feels so true to life, as in you probably know a guy or two in real life whose ambition is just as self-destructive. Yes, such "human beings" exist.

The chemistry among the actors makes the film such a good watch, along with the awesome CGI. But this is a Guillermo del Toro movie. Great CGI and costume design are already a given. Just when you thought he wouldn’t be able to top the beautifully tragic Pan’s Labyrinth, here he goes again with another memorable film that just tickles your imagination. How he makes the beings in his universe appear so realistic is anybody’s guess. He did the same in Hellboy. In The Shape of Water, it’s sort of limited to the sea creature alone, but still as enchanting as it could ever be. None of us can claim to have seen such an Amphibian Man in real life, but looking at del Toro’s work makes it feel like you do have.

The film Amélie always comes to mind whenever I hear The Shape of Water’s soundtrack. For whatever reason, there is something not just about the original score but also with the cinematography that reminds you of the French film. And so I thought the two shared a composer or two, but Wikipedia says otherwise. Both films have this whimsical vibe that transforms everything into a material of dreamlike quality. Perhaps the difference is that when combined with the thrill involved in the latter’s plot, it gives you an odd mix of aesthetics and suspense. It leaves your heart racing, exhilarated yet enamored.

The Shape of Water is a striking work of art that you’d love to hang on your wall, a fairy tale that doesn’t just set your imagination in motion, but also prompts you to think about what it really means to be human. Poignant. Electrifying. Aesthetically pleasing. Guillermo del Toro, please don’t ever retire.

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