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Review: "The Shape of Water" (2017)


Title: The Shape of Water (2017)

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Fantasy

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones

Grade: A

In a Nutshell: Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman working as a janitor at a science research facility outside of Baltimore in the 1960's. Elisa and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are in charge of cleaning the lab holding the facility's newest "asset" - a humanoid, aquatic creature (Doug Jones) that is the subject of cruel experiments. Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) has transported the creature from the Amazon to the facility in hopes that these experiments will help the United States win the Space Race (the creature's ability to breathe both in and out of water is of particular interest to the scientists), but grows angry when the creature attacks him and severs two of his fingers. Elisa, meanwhile, grows fascinated with the creature and begins sneaking up to its tank during her lunch break, sharing food and music with him. It becomes clear that the creature is capable of emotion, communication, and even love. When Elisa overhears Strickland and his superior, General Hoyt (Nick Searcy), discussing their plans to kill and vivisect the "asset," she knows she must do something to save him. Working together with her best friend and neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), Zelda, and "Bob" (Michael Stuhlbarg), a sympathetic doctor who works at the facility, Elisa hatches a plan to save the creature.

The Critique: A modern fairy tale, beautifully realized, The Shape of Water is an absolute gem. The film manages to bank on collective nostalgia for mid-century set design and costuming while refusing to turn a blind eye to the pervasive sexism, ableism, racism, and homophobia of the era. The social commentary also avoids flattening those –isms into purely interpersonal issues, but gives them the depth and attention deserved. Even on a purely visual level, the film shines – the mint greens, teal blues, and splashes of deep red make for an unusual color palette in an era of pervasive orange/blue contrast in Hollywood films. Set design, character design (particularly for the "creature"), costuming, and cinematography all rival del Toro's earlier masterpiece, Pan's Labyrinth. Storytelling, character building, and dialogue are all also meticulously crafted down to minor details. This is a film that begs to be watched and re-watched.

Shout-Out(s): This film was my first exposure to Sally Hawkins, and she is a force to be reckoned with. Using just gesture and facial expression, Hawkins is able to express a depth of emotion many actors can't reach, even with dialogue and inflection to help get them there. Spencer and Jenkins are perfectly cast as Zelda and Giles, and Michael Shannon brings an intensity to the film that is a perfect foil to Hawkins.

To Go, Rent, or to Netflix: This one is worth seeing in theaters, while you can still find showtimes!

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