My nominee for best picture is ‘Shape of Water.’
Directed and under marketed for limited release by visionary director Guillermo Del Toro, you may have missed this gem, such as I did. ‘The Shape of Water’ may be one of the best films that I have ever seen, and is largely flawless in it’s storytelling, production, and acting. With more layers than the dip at a superbowl party, you may end up watching this movie several times and still not pick up on all it’s subtleties. Rarely does a film come out with such poignant timing that it strikes upon most of the social injustices that plague America today, but wrap it in the allegorical bow of a science fiction/fantasy film.
At it’s absolute core this is a fresh take on a classic horror tale such as: ‘The Creature From The Black Lagoon’ designed to intrigue and scare an audience simultaneously. Simply put it’s also a ‘Beauty and The Beast’ tale of two misunderstood social outcasts finding each other in a increasingly dark world. But that description, although simple and blatantly honest, is doing the film a disservice. ‘The Shape of Water’ uses these classic movie tropes to shroud it’s messages in order to make them more palatable. Like the depths of the black lagoon itself, ‘The Shape of Water’ is so much deeper than that.
Fans of director, Del Toro, will right at home here; also recognizing that he himself is a HUGE film nerd (for lack of a better term). You can see the many influences of classic cinema, such as ‘Casablanca,’ to Shirley Temple classics with big studio dance numbers, to retro science fiction such as ‘The Twilight Zone.’ Everything about this film, from setting, to characters, to general plot progression has a deeper political message to give - and sadly holds up a mirror to the general lack of progress that we have made as a society.
Although the setting harkens back to classic science fiction, the setting is specifically important to note. In the 1960’s during the height of the Cold War, we were terrified of Nuclear War with Russia and narrowly avoiding disaster with the Cuban Missile Crisis (much like today with Russia and North Korea). But even more importantly than what was happening globally was what was happening locally here in the States. Gender roles were specifically defined and we were coming out of the Jim Crow era; as Congress did not pass the ‘The Civil Rights Act’ until 1964 which ended segregation (on paper).
Although the 1960’s were a time of huge transformation for America, turning that ship around took a long while. With the approval of birth control by the government in early 1960, women were no longer beholden to men and were empowered by choice and control over their own bodies. This is represented in the film by the character Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a women that is mute and literally has no voice to protest the subjugation by men in the workplace. Because the 60’s were a time of radical change, regardless, we were still coming out of a time where men made much more money than women, women were generally thought of as less than. Since men ‘brought home the bacon’ so to speak, they did not take part in women’s work (such as vacuuming, cleaning, cooking, etc.) Anyone who wasn’t a white male American, was thought of as ‘less than,’ Blacks specifically were referred to offhandedly as ‘the help’ constantly receiving the short end of the stick by default. The idea that ‘man is made in God’s image’ was generally thought of as ‘the white man is made in God’s image.’ Much like today, the idea of what makes a real man was defined by his material possessions and status in society and this shared nationwide sentiment is represented in the film by the character of Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).
This is Guillermo Del Toro’s best film since ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.’ But I would argue that this is his best movie period. Similar to ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ in some respects, we see similar character development such as: the crumbling transformation of a once made man (usually the antagonist) into a vicious animal when times get tough in both films. We see the main female character being undervalued and underestimated in her power in both films. But even though character progression is similar, ‘Shape of Water’ marks a defining change for the director, creating a film with a much more complicated and mature story than previously. It seems Del Toro does his best work when he is not being paid from some large studio to create a commercial property such as ‘Hellboy’ or ‘Lord of The Rings.’ But what I don’t understand about Del Toro is his penchant for torture scenes and grotesque cringe inducing violence in his original films. The torture scene in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ is one of the main reasons I do not re-watch it more regularly.
Essentially, ‘The Shape of Water’ explores the themes of what it means to be civilized, human, compassionate, empathetic, and open minded. It shows viewers that everyone has a place, much like the food chain, and encourages you disrupt this by trying to move out of the place society has given you, to break the food chain, because that is how incredible things happen. ‘The Shape of Water’ may challenge your personal beliefs, what your value system is, where your comfort zone is, and what you really care about. It is interesting, even the title: ‘The Shape of Water’ can be interpreted in many different ways. Take, for example, that human beings regardless of race, creed, or culture; are 90% water. Essentially making all of us ‘Shapes of Water.’ (Whoa, man…) But that is what a good movie does, it allows the audience to view, interpret, and be entertained by it in different ways.
In the meantime, boil those eggs, girl.
The Shape Of Water
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Written By: Guillermo Del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
Run Time: 123 mins