Monday, December 25, 2017

The Shape of Water: Flows exquisitely

The Shape of Water (2017) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated R, for nudity, strong sexual content, profanity and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.29.17

Truly adult fairy tales may be the rarest of movie treasures, given how almost everything these days — particularly what emanates from corporate Hollywood — is designed for all-ages audiences.

When things start to go awry in the top-secret facility where they all work, paranoid
government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) interrogates everybody, including
cleaning women Elisa (Sally Hawkins, center) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer, center right).
We need look elsewhere for thoughtful, intelligent and provocative alternative fare: the cinematic equivalent of, say, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane (far more disturbingly graphic — but just as imaginative — as his Coraline or The Graveyard Book).

France’s Marc Caro comes to mind, with Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, the latter co-directed with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, equally adept at the genre, as evidenced by Amélie and Micmacs. Spain’s Alejandro Amenábar gave us The Others.

But they all pale alongside Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro, whose intriguing early efforts in this rarefied environment — Mimic and The Devil’s Backbone — were but a prelude to the masterful Pan’s Labyrinth: by far one of the most unsettling and provocative blends of fantasy and real-world horror ever brought to the big screen.

Until now.

The Shape of Water is an entirely different sort of Del Toro masterpiece: a richly detailed parable of lonely people coping with extraordinary circumstances, while confronting the monsters in our midst. The narrative — co-written by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor — has the lyrical quality of a gently poignant fable, which nonetheless conceals the sort of savagely ironic message beloved by Rod Serling.

It feels like one thing, upon entry: becomes something entirely different, before we’re allowed to exit.

Best of all, the film is powered by a truly stunning starring performance by Sally Hawkins, who in a few short years has emerged as one of the world’s finest and most sensitively nuanced actresses. She has enjoyed a remarkable year: This film follows her delicately crafted work in summer’s Maudie, and her unforgettable portrayal of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis.

Nobody could have expected a second, equally transcendent performance in the same year. Her character here is similarly disenfranchised, and yet entirely different: a lonely, quietly withdrawn woman who blossoms — like a flower unveiling luminescent colors in bright sunlight — under highly unusual conditions.

The setting is Baltimore; the time is the early 1960s. On the one hand, this is recognizably our reality, as evidenced by familiar clothes, cars and (frequently intolerant) attitudes. People amuse themselves, at home after work, with soporific sitcoms such as Mr. Ed and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Lurid news reports are a daily reminder of post-atomic Cold War paranoia.

And yet other aspects quickly signal that this isn’t quite our world, but in fact a closely related parallel reality.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), mute since childhood, toils as a cleaning woman in a top-secret government facility. She works alongside the feisty Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), a tart-tongued, self-appointed chaperone who constantly looks out for her colleague. They clock in each evening; they mop and scrub; they try not to pay attention to what takes place in foreboding-looking labs.

Elisa’s home life, in a tiny but immaculately maintained apartment, is the stuff of ritual: waking, eating unremarkable meals, going to work, returning to empty rooms. This tedium is offset by frequent visits with her neighbor and dearest friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins), an old-school glossy magazine artist in the lavish, Norman Rockwell/J.C. Leyendecker mold. Alas, assignments have become rare; his beautifully rendered efforts are being usurped by (say it isn’t so) photographs.

Giles adores old Hollywood musicals; Elisa generously tolerates the albums he constantly spins on his phonograph. How appropriate, then, that they live above a grand old movie theater that shows classics nobody wishes to see: films as disenfranchised as these two people.

But in the privacy of a bathtub filled with warm water, Elisa allows another side of her personality to emerge: a secret self who indulges fantasies concocted behind closed eyes, a faint smile acknowledging pleasures that she can’t experience any other way.

The dynamic shifts abruptly one day, with the arrival of a biological “asset” accompanied by the steel-jawed, self-righteous Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). He’s a government agent whose spit-and-polish arrogance is wholly at odds with the milder behavior of scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and security head Fleming (David Hewlett).

The “asset” is an aquatic humanoid with bioluminescent skin and round, layered eyes forever blinking in confusion. At first blush, this feels like Del Toro’s riff on The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but with a significant distinction: We now view what was enjoyed capriciously as sci-fi fluff, back in the 1950s, with a heightened awareness and sensitivity shaped by our post-Black Fish experiences.

Strickland regards the creature as something to be dissected, to determine how it’s able to breathe both on land and under water: a talent that would be invaluable for American soldiers battling the “Communist menace.” And he knows full well that the evil, insidious Russians would dearly love to steal this ... thing ... for their own similar purposes.

When a nasty little contretemps unexpectedly puts Elisa in close proximity to the creature, she sees a trapped, confused and badly treated living being whose expressive doe eyes and cautious movements radiate clear intelligence. (Credit actor Doug Jones, invisible beneath this all-encompassing exterior, for a performance laden with pathos).

Careful to avoid being seen by facility supervisors and guards, Elisa spends her down time in this lab, which (conveniently) empties during the lunch hour. She and the creature bond. Over hard-boiled eggs.

Which sounds silly. But — believe me — absolutely isn’t.

As to where this goes ... well, you’ll just have to find out for yourself.

On a superficial level, Del Toro is upending classic movie stereotypes. Back in the day, the conventionally good-looking Strickland would be the hero, while the hideous and unfathomable whatzit would be “the monster.” Those roles have been reversed here, but that’s merely the teasing surface of this delicately shaped story, which — at its core — is a mature and deeply poignant exploration of what lonely individuals (a deliberately broad term) will do in pursuit of love.

At the same time, Del Toro and Taylor impishly work in a savagely satiric indictment of Cold War paranoia: a snarky tone worthy of the Coen brothers.

Hawkins, once again, is a revelation. She deftly sketches the bird-like Elisa during an introductory montage that tells us everything we need to know about her ... but this is merely the “her” up to this point. Hidden reserves of guile, strength and resourcefulness emerge as the bizarre situation demands: a defiant gaze, a quietly smug smile, brash impulsiveness and much more, all anchored by Hawkins’ bottomless depths of heartbreaking remoteness.

Jenkins is similarly subtle, with his portrayal of a man out of synch in both directions: born a generation too late for his talent to bring him the fame and security he deserves; and (at least) a generation too early to be comfortable with his own identity. He’s a study in fluster, insecurity, disenchantment and frustration: too discouraged, even, to dress appropriately for pitch meetings. As with Elisa, his life needs a jolt of adrenaline.

Spencer is a spunky force of nature with a withering gaze that could cripple at 20 paces ... but only as circumstances allow. All too aware of her “place” as a woman — and black — in an environment dominated by officiously powerful white men, Zelda becomes meek and compliant at the blink of an eye ... but even then, Spencer’s expressive hint of contempt never quite vanishes.

At first blush, Stuhlbarg and Hewlett are cookie-cutter, white-coated scientist types: so similar that they seem interchangeable. But that’s deceptive; both actors soon reveal telling distinctions.

Shannon, in a word, is scary: a thuggish, condescending bully who (barely) hides his bestial nature behind the Amuurican mantra of baseball, motherhood and apple pie. He hasn’t radiated such disquieting presence since his breakthrough supporting role in 2008’s Revolutionary Road. Strickland always seems just one perceived slight away from full-blown psychosis.

Disquieting as he is by day, at work, his behavior at home — alongside a wife and children — is the stuff of nightmares.

The film’s look and atmosphere are constantly off-kilter: Cinematographer Dan Laustsen creates touches of vertigo with unusual camera placement, along with the calculated use of color and grain. Del Toro and visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi enhance this disorientation from the very first scene, which sets a mystifying stage — an oddly beautiful tableau — as Giles’ off-camera narration promises a most unusual tale.

He does not exaggerate.

The Shape of Water is clever, provocative, unexpectedly whimsical, distressing, heartbreaking and — ultimately — deeply revealing of the human heart and soul. Many images will linger just as long as the underlying message: that true love knows no boundaries.

1 comment:

  1. Very good review. My grandson and I went today. I had no desire to see this movie, but ended by thinking it wonderful, absorbing....almost operatic.