The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight)
After the credits rolled, I wrote in my notes: "an epic and magical adult fairytale drama for the ages." This beauty and the beast fable is set in Maryland in 1963 during the height of the Cold War as well as culture wars against civil, homosexual and women's rights, and reinforces what we already know about that time period. Director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro is not afraid to let us peer backwards to see the world today, to see the world through his lens and view the real monsters that roam our planet. He paints his world in a by-gone era patina that is both warm and familiar -- the spot-on period sets with the cars, and clothes and shabby apartments, the films and TV shows -- as well as the dark and paranoid. It was a time in America's history just before the barriers of the man vs "monster" ethos would to be confronted, whether it was the threat of the Soviet Union's communism and global domination, or the fear of African-Americans, the handicap, gays or women wielding a voice in our society; sadly these issues exist today. Even the creature's design is reminiscent of the original Creature From the Black Lagoon (Universal, 1954). But, having said all of that, it is more than just an homage to a bygone era.
His "Amazon Creature" aka "Asset" (Doug Jones) is befriended by the mute cleaning woman Elisa (Sally Hawkins). Neither sees a monster in each other, only the true monster of the God-fearing and bully CIA operative psychopath (Michael Shannon). Mr. Shannon plays it pitch perfect. His dead-eyed interactions with his family underscore his disdain for that side of his "normal" life even if it means he can afford a new Cadillac and a piece of his American pie. He prefers torturing enemies of the state and making sure no Commie bastards gain any more advantages over the US of A. The movie also stars Octavia Spencer as Elisa's empathetic co-worker/silent language interpreter/friend, Richard Jenkins as her lonely artist/neighbor/friend, and Michael Stuhlbarg as the empathetic scientist/Soviet double agent. All three are excellent in their supporting roles.
Make no mistake, Mr. del Toro knows his way around fables that make you think. His Hellboy films perfectly captured comic book artist Mike Mignola's apocalyptic universe and those two films continue to dazzle a new subset of fans who may have missed them the first time around. (A reboot is in the making.) It's no coincidence that Mr. Jones played the telepathic "Mer-Man" Abe Sapien in those films. He also wrote and directed the wildly entertaining Pacific Rim, an homage to Japanese monster movies of the '60s and '70s that is more than just the good guys vs. monsters movie.
The Shape of Water won The Golden Lion Winner for Best Picture at the Venice International Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. And I will not be surprised to see a "best film" nomination for Mr. del Toro and "best actress" nomination for Ms. Hawkins at the 2018 Oscars. Rare that a movie can suspend the natural order of the adult universe to allow one to peer into our past and wallow in our once child-like innocence and/or terror, something we all need to tap into from time to time. It helps to look back so we/humanity can hopefully move forward.