Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Shape Of Water (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works as a cleaner at a secret government facility, one houses a creature (Doug Jones) the likes of which the world has never seen before. As she converses with her colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and dealing with the leering eye of her boss Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), she develops a bond with 'The Asset' and plans to break him out of the facility. However, between Strickland and certain whispers of the Russians wanting to get their hands on The Asset, that task may prove difficult.

Hawkins shows a definite understanding of how blocking and movement can depict a character where words can’t, but that is more a showing of her as a capable actor in and of itself as opposed to anything specifically to do with the character. Instead, it’s how she manages to bring so much vibrancy, energy and even some classical sensuality to her performance that is worthy of praise, turning her silence into a deafening roar of strength. Shannon is at the best he’s been in a very long time here as the direct opposite of that silence, portraying humanity at its most primal and vindictive. Whether it’s eating candy or discussing the way he washes his hands, he makes every moment feel both true to a singular character and indicative a very angry and very hubristic mindset within the collective humanity. It probably helps that he manages to work eerily well with just how vile his character is. Like, ‘dragging a man by the bullet hole in his face’ kind of vile.

Doug Jones as our creature/love interest starts on a weird step, as it takes a while to get over the fact that, no, this isn’t an Abe Sapien origin story. Despite how near-identical the character design is. And the affinity for eating eggs. And the liking for gramophone music. This would be annoyingly derivative if it weren’t for two things. One, Jones’ knack for creature acting holds true, as he manages to show the same ease of movement that he has in the past. And two, and this is the more important bit, his chemistry with Hawkins, combined with the emphasis on actions and sign language, result in the core romance basically embodying the phrase “love beyond mere words”. Richard Jenkins is very warm and heartfelt as Elisa’s artistic neighbour, hitting the more subtle notes of prejudice that lie at the heart of the story; Michael Stuhlbarg as the empathic scientist continues to show that flair that I’ve come to expect from the guy; Spencer works nicely as the earthy best friend of Elisa, Searcy as Strickland’s superior puts a lot of dread into his few lines, and Morgan Kelly as the ‘Pie Guy’ makes one hell of an impression from all of two scenes.

I’m going to rattle off a few film names for you. Blade. Devil’s Backbone. Hellboy. Pan’s Labyrinth. Pacific Rim. Crimson Peak. These films were all directed by one Guillermo Del Toro, but just looking at them individually, that wouldn’t be immediately obvious. Del Toro seems to operate in this weird two-phase mindset, where he is either making bombastic crowd pleasers or artistic critical darlings, both of which he has managed to do with equal vigour. This is the kind of separated-by-a-line dichotomy that usually leaves talented filmmakers left on the cultural fringe, wanting for a single identity that the masses can latch onto. Well, that might not even be a problem anymore because, somehow, this film manages to be both. Del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsen (Mimic, Crimson Peak, John Wick: Chapter 2) incorporate a lot of classical pop elements, particularly those relating to film and theatre, and contrast them with some dark, mildew-stained Bioshock-esque genre imagery to create a synergy between what is ‘pop’ and what is ‘art’. If you’re a Warhol scholar and wondering why that division is even a thing, join the club.

With the core story being a romance between a human woman and a humanoid fish creature, you would expect the film to get into some form of discussion about what exactly is “human”. This would normally be done to try and downplay how… weird such a coupling reads on paper (a lot of fantasy romances involving vampires and/or werewolves try this same thing), but it ends up serving a greater purpose in this film. Through the interactions between characters, we see a lot of flimsy justification to consider people to be less-than-human. In the of Elisa, it’s through disability. In the case of Zelda, it’s through race. In the potential case of Giles, it’s through sexuality. And through “the Asset”, it’s through an inability to understand what he is even is. To paraphrase Dr. Robert’s superior, they are not interested in learning; only that no-one else does.
But here’s the thing, as I’ve said before in other reviews like Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2: You back enough people into a single corner, and they start to realize that they have been back into the same corner, by the same people wielding the same mindset. And because the ‘humans’ have already written them off as not worth worrying about, they band together. They look out for each other. They undermine that which these people hold as what makes them ‘human’.

So, how does this apply to the romance? Well, for a start, it adds enough theme to the overall production to (hopefully) head off the usual cries of “Bestiality! You’re accepting bestiality! This is what happens when you let gays marry!” and all that bullshit. I don’t usually make counter-arguments about audiences just not getting the point of a given work but… yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I mean, romanticising that which is considered sub-human has existed for as long as our contact with those we deem sub-human. From the cautionary tales of cannibal tribes in the Amazon to the supposed exposés into “ethnic mating habits”, both of which shined for a fairly extensive time in the world of cinema, right down to the use of blackface, as shown in the film proper.
While the above examples end up romanticising other cultures as a means of showing the observer (read: privileged-as-fuck white people) as the comparatively superior culture, this does something decidedly different. It highlights the sense of empathy that comes out of being ostracised for rather flimsy reasons, as is the case for pretty much every sympathetic character in this story, and states a couple basic facts. Elisa and the Asset understand each other. They care for each other. They love each other. We pride ourselves so much on our connection to our emotions, so I ask you: How is this not human?

All in all… honestly, this might be Guillermo Del Toro’s single best work to date. Not just because it has a cast full of engaging performers. Not just because the writing constructs a timeless fairy tale out of both past and present pop culture influences. Not even just because it looks pretty. This is Del Toro’s definitive work because it takes his two major modes of storytelling, the blockbuster powerhouse and the fantastical artist, and merges them together in such a seamless way that I’m starting to wonder why that dichotomy even exists in his filmography. Or if it even exists to begin with. It’s one thing to be a genuinely powerful film in its own right; it’s quite another to be able to re-contextualise my entire understanding of his other films this efficiently.

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