★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Oscar Worthy! (C’mon Hollywood… pick this one.)
The Oscars are going to be announced tomorrow morning, and there is so much buzz about Del Toro’s latest film that I had to go out and see this before the announcement. Is it worthy of such distinction? YES! The movie defies categorization. Is it a romance? Yes. Is it a fantasy film? Yes. Is it a spy caper? Yes! Is it a horror movie? Well… maybe. Kinda? It does feature a spectacular amphibian man. He’s a cross between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Abe Sapien from Hellboy, in a wondrous costume, put on display by the modern Lon Chaney, Doug Jones. The true monster of the movie, however, is the uber-menacing Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) who growls and glowers his way through the laboratory. (He has some very amusing comic bits as well… a great villain!) Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins put in best-supporting actress/actor worthy performances, but make no mistake, this film is owned by Sally Hawkin’s mute cleaning lady, Elisa Esposito.
Hawkins pours her heart into the role, communicating the full spectrum of emotions without saying a word. Simple moments, like when she rests her head on the bus window are filled with nuance and Del Toro frames her scenes like paintings. I fully expect to hear her name announced tomorrow, and I think she stands a real shot at winning. The story is one of loneliness and the nature of communication. It’s also a classic forbidden romance, kept apart, not by familial differences, but by 1960’s cold-war fears. Ellie and Zelda (Spencer) are janitors for a top secret government lab in Baltimore, and when Strickland shows up with his mysterious live cargo, Ellie is fascinated. The creature has a mean streak, though, as, during a savage experiment, Strickland gets two of his fingers removed by his exotic catch, leaving Ellie and Zelda to clean up the very bloody aftermath. Ellie’s curiosity is further piqued, and she lingers in the lab to lure out this new mysterious being. The interplay of her coaxing and luring out the amphibious man, and later falling in love with him is pure gold. I will admit that this movie is not scary, in the traditional horror sense. It does have, however, a continuous tension that Ellie’s secrets will be discovered, and what the vicious Strickland will do to preserve his reputation.
Events unfold such that Ellie is forced to attempt a rescue of her new amphibious friend, and is assisted by her gay roommate Giles, heartbreakingly portrayed by Richard Jenkins and the lab’s lead scientist Bob Hoffstetler who also harbors a vested interest in the creature, and who harbors a dark secret which proves key in the rescue attempt. The great thing about the second act caper part of the movie is the recognition that nobody suspects the janitorial staff of any ability or desire to meddle with the operations of the facility. Elisa is the most inconspicuous of the inconspicuous, and she’d clever enough to exploit that. The third act unfolds as you might expect, with a race against the clock and a villain hell-bent on revenge. But it’s played out so well that I at least, was willing to overlook that this was like an R-rated E.T. story unfolding.
It is important not to understate how breathtaking the art direction, sets, and cinematography is in The Shape of Water. It is a storybook come to life. Elisa and Giles flat above the Orpheum Theater is a wondrous place, evocative of a magic library that would make Hogwarts proud. The pie shop and the pies where Giles frustratingly gets rebuffed goes from charming to foreboding in a backlighting twist at the same time the dialogue goes dark. Very clever knitting of the script (Del Toro’s own) to set, and this happens throughout the film. Doug Jones and the effects team make the creature a fully alive and romantic figure, bristling, chortling, and crackling with life. This is Beauty and the Beast, done the way I wanted it.
Tomorrow is a big day. Not only is this film in line for some, if not most of the big prizes for Hollywood’s big day, but so is Get Out. Though Get Out is more of a true horror movie, there should be room for celebration from all who love genre films that two of the greatest will be honored this year. Odds are good that these films might actually win one of those damned golden statues too!