Best Picture Profile: The Shape of Water


As we come closer to the Academy Awards on March 4th, we’ll be posting short profiles of each Best Picture nominee, attempting, in our own ways, to not only sum up what the movie is about, but why we believe it scored one of the nine coveted nominations, and why it could possibly take home the big prize come Oscar night.

Enjoy today’s nominee, The Shape of Water!

How do you solve a problem like being the most Oscar-nominated movie of the year when a vocal minority believes that you don’t deserve your status as the current Best Picture front runner?

While I might ponder this question endlessly, I doubt that director Guillermo del Toro and his The Shape of Water team are feeling very pressed to consider it even for a second. This movie is a bonafide awards magnet.

Those honors include 12 BAFTA nominations and huge wins at both the Directors and Producers Guild Awards. It has also been heralded as a touching allegory for the persecution of queer people.

Similar to technical marvels that have made their way to the Dolby Theater before it, The Shape of Water could easily walk away winning the most trophies of the night if it manages to sweep the design categories like Production Design, Sound Editing/Mixing, Score (Alexandre Desplat is the favorite to pick up his second Oscar for gorgeous music that actually sounds like it’s being played underwater), Editing,  etc.

I wouldn’t begrudge it any of those accolades. I sat in my seat stunned for a few seconds after the credits started rolling. I was thoroughly ravished by the visual ecstasy of the movie’s arresting final moments. But, once the clock struck midnight (literally, I also saw the last showing of this movie), the spell was broken. I couldn’t help but focus on the movie’s shortcomings, which are primarily script-based.

After a super cool aquatic-themed title sequence, we meet Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins at her best, which is saying something), who follows up some steamy alone time in the tub with a delicious hard boiled egg for breakfast. Because she is mute and communicates through ASL, the only friends she has are her gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins, my pick to win Best Supporting Actor) and her black co-worker (Octavia Spencer, who according to my friend Sarah, is playing a combination of her roles in The Help and Hidden Figures—I agree). And, because it’s the 1960s, life isn’t easy for any of them.

Things are possibly even worse for an anthropomorphic fish person who is brought into the shady government facility Elisa works at and tortured by the sadistic Colonel Strickland. Some snooping on Elisa’s part lands her a permanent post as cleaner of the secret chamber where the creature is being imprisoned. As the unlikely lovers spend more time together, they eventually develop a palpable sexual attraction. Elisa risks everything to get her happy ending with the creature, and if you’ve ever loved someone and been told you couldn’t, you’ll struggle to not root for those crazy kids.

My issue with the movie’s plot is that it’s way overstuffed. I didn’t even mention the other storylines involving Strickland’s plans to somehow use the creature against the Russians in the Cold War, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, who’s in literally everything this year) wrestling with his own moral and patriotic allegiances, Spencer’s character’s abusive marriage, and…you get the point.

As soon as I was being swept up in a romantic interlude between Elisa and the fish monster, I was immediately brought back to Earth by a scene of vague political yelling in Strickland’s office. It’s even more frustrating when you consider how deftly del Toro balances the political and the fantastical in his infinitely better 2006 Spanish-language masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth.

In my opinion, this movie shares a few key beats with Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s disturbing how similar Elisa’s reckoning is to that of Pan’s Labyrinth’s heroine Ofelia. Still, I will applaud del Toro when his name is inevitably called as Best Director come March 4th. When you listen to him list Beauty and the Beast, Douglas Sirk, and Creature from the Black Lagoon among his references/influences for this movie, it’s hard to deny that he accomplished something unique.

What other Best Picture nominee can boast inspiring its own custom dildo?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

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