An other-worldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro (screenplay by), Vanessa Taylor (screenplay by)
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon
Guillermo del Toro still believes in the magic of movies. He understands, perhaps better than anyone, that we are willing to sign over the expectation of realism if we are enraptured by the emotion of cinema. He has always produced films that work on multiple levels, but his latest, the masterful “The Shape of Water,” which also just won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, is one of his deepest, most complex, most rewarding, and flat-out beautiful films. It is enchanting and moving, the kind of movie you want to see again the minute it’s over.
Del Toro’s film opens underwater, a camera floating through a light blue world of furniture and photographs that eventually settles to the floor, as we arrive on the waking face of Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins). Immediately, del Toro is setting tone—bringing us to the film through a dream-like state in a way that makes it clear this is a fairy tale that won’t necessarily play by the rules of everyday realism. Adding to this sense of magic is the fact that Eliza lives above an old-fashioned movie house, and spends her days watching classic films with her kindly artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). She spends her nights working the cleaning crew at a top-secret facility with her friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Late one night, the operation brings in an “Asset” that looks like a modern variation on The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Played by Doug Jones, the Asset is a fascinating cinematic creation, unable to speak, but clearly able to feel and eventually communicate. Eliza, who happens to be mute, forms a relationship with this fellow outcast, while the evil Strickland (Michael Shannon) refuses to see it as anything more than a creature to be analyzed and abused.
On one level, “The Shape of Water” is a lovely romance, an ode to a pair of beings cast aside by an indifferent world, and it has a heartfelt undercurrent that works from first frame to last. However, this is no mere whimsy experiment. Del Toro is working in a deeper register than you may first expect, imbuing the story with political subtext and honest stakes. This is a grown-up film with violence, sex, and danger. It is a movie with something important to say about how the dreamers, artists, scientists, and cleaners of the world will be its revolutionaries, and the people more likely to do what’s right than those in charge.
And then there are del Toro’s gifts with composition and performance. By now, we shouldn’t surprised that “The Shape of Water” looks amazing. There’s not a detail unconsidered or design element unrefined. The ensemble is uniformly incredible as well, especially Hawkins, who gives one of the best silent performances in film history. Her work helps tie this movie to a lineage of classic filmmaking we don’t often see anymore, in which composition and physicality mattered more than the almighty dialogue. Given my love for its filmmaker, I may be too close to this project to see its flaws, but I don’t think I’ll be alone in considering it a masterpiece.
While my response to “The Shape of Water” may be relatively predictable, I was stunned by how strongly I responded to Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” the writer/director’s best work in a very long time. The writer of “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” is having a crisis of faith, examining personal issues of religion in a way that he hasn’t done in a very long time, and doing so in a style that feels very European. This movie has drawn comparisons to Bresson, but it also reminded me of Ceylan in its long chapters of theological dissection and refusal to offer viewers the typical crutches that most movies provide. It gets a little crazy in the final act—although I can’t wait for people to dissect the ambiguous ending—but there’s so much to like here.
The always-great Ethan Hawke plays a chaplain named Toller at the titular First Reformed Church, a small place seen more now as a tourist stop than a house of God. One of his flock, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), comes to him asking for help with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). The young couple are about to have a baby, but Michael, recently turned into an extreme environmental activist, doesn’t want to bring life into a dying world. He’s convinced that the species will be extinct in his child’s lifetime. How could you purposefully do that to someone? The conversations shake Toller, who is also writing a journal for a year, putting his thoughts on paper in a way that seems to amplify and intensify his internal conflicts.
“First Reformed” is a deeply theological film. Toller says, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind at the same time: hope and despair.” But what happens when the latter greatly outweighs the former? The world is ending, disease is destroying your body—how does one maintain hope? And how does one proceed when faith seems to be inadequate. We’ve been taught that godliness and prosperity aren’t linked, but it can be increasingly difficult to maintain belief when your world is coming down. And for Toller, even worry is wicked. Doesn’t anxiety indicate doubt in the Lord? This is a film of fascinating conversations, anchored by Hawke’s completely genuine performance. Some of Schrader’s directorial choices are questionable, but I really want to see this film again, and it’s a piece that I can’t wait to read people’s writing on it. It’s the kind of work of art that seems like it could inspire fantastic conversation. We need more movies like it.
– Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com