Movie Review: The Shape of Water

Colby Echo (Tommy Chandler)

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Oscar season is upon us, and the nominations for Best Picture have me trying catch ’em all before March 4. On Wednesday Feb. 28, Railroad Cinema hosted a $1 Movie Night for The Shape of Water, and I had heard too many mixed reviews to not go see it and make up my mind for myself. I knew the general plot going in: a mute woman falls in love with a mermaid. However, Best Director winner Guillermo Del Toro develops the characters around the social context of a Cold War era Baltimore. In doing so, themes of social inequality based on ability, gender, race, nationalism, and sexual orientation collide to turn the film into the Best Picture nominee that it is.

The story, constructed around a mute woman named Elisa who works as a sanitary worker in a government facility, is both relatable heart warming. Living alone and socially ostracized by her disability, she is portrayed as shy and lonely, despite her close relationship with her neighbor Giles, played by Richard Jenkins, and her coworker Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer. On the job, she develops a unique relationship with an aquatic creature that is being kept at the facility for scientific research and for political capital against the Soviets in the Space Race. Intrigued by the creature, Elisa starts sneaking into the room where he is held in his tank to spend her lunch breaks with him. Over time, they form a connection based on their experiences of social isolation.

Del Toro does a wonderful job developing the characters within the context of 1960’s American culture. Elisa’s good friend Giles is a gay man who paints advertisements and lives alone. Her coworker Zelda is an African American woman living at the dawn of the Civil Rights Era. One of the scientists observing the creature at the laboratory is actually a Soviet spy whose vested interest in and care for the creature come at odds with his order to destroy it. These roles are compelling, but the way that Del Toro devises different story lines around them is a bit confusing. Rarely did they overlap with one another, which felt in a way like an under realization of the overall plot. Personally, I found myself hoping they would come together in the end, but this was not the case.

While the film’s message of loneliness resonates with me, I think that there were overlooked nominees that were deserving of some Oscars hardware. One that stands out in particular is Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, which tells a coming of age story from the eyes of a 17 year-old boy discovering his sexuality in a romance with an older man. Another strong contender in the group was Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Best Actress winner Frances McDormand plays a mother demanding answers after her daughter’s murder. The messages and cinematic experiences between these films — and the other six incredible films nominated — are quite different, and I can understand the Academy’s decision. And despite my criticisms, I would definitely recommend seeing The Shape of Water to form your own opinions. Also, be sure to keep an eye out for Railroad Cinema’s $1 Movie Nights in the future!