The Shape of Water
Peculiar romance finds the beating heart below the scaly surface of a misunderstood monster
The Shape of Water (2017)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkings, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon
Visionary (there’s really no other word for it) filmmaker Guillermo del Toro mashes up horror, sci-fi, fantasy, romance and historical drama for his latest film, the mid-century modern fairy tale The Shape of Water. The result is one of his most artistic outings and a swooningly original twist on the postwar monster movie genre.
It’s no secret del Toro loves his monsters: Witness the kindly old vampire in Cronos, the sad underaged ghosts of The Devil’s Backbone, the heroic titular demon in Hellboy, the mysterious woodland spirits of Pan’s Labyrinth, the giant alien kaiju of Pacific Rim. Now he lets that lifelong passion bloom into full-blown romance and limpid eroticism. Our guide into this brave old world comes in the form of Elisa Esposito (British actress Sally Hawkins from Happy-Go-Lucky and Blue Jasmine). Elisa is lonely mute gal working as a cleaning woman at a top secret government facility outside Baltimore, circa 1962. The Cold War is heating up, and a cabal of white-jacketed scientists scurry around the elaborately tiled bunker looking for ways to one-up the Russkies. In one particular lab, they have isolated a curious new specimen—an amphibious fish-man who looks suspiciously like a certain Creature from the Black Lagoon (not to mention Abe Sapien from Hellboy).
Privy to the sort of secrets that unseen underlings are frequently exposed, Elisa and her talkative coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) witness the creature firsthand while mopping up the bloody carnage after the aquatic prisoner lashes out at his cruel captor. That captor turns out to be hard-nosed, cattle prod-wielding Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who is now the secret government facility’s new head of security. If there’s one thing Shannon knows how to do it’s project slate-faced menace. (See for example: “Boardwalk Empire,” Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel, Nocturnal Animals.) Here he serves as the film’s metaphorical (as opposed to literal) monster, pushing for the creature’s vivisection—which will put a quick end to this assignment, allowing Strickland to escape the lowly confines of ’60s Baltimore.
The film quickly establishes that our Plain Jane protagonist Elisa is unhappy and isolated—although not without her dreams and sexual longings. Handicapped by her lack of speech, her only real friends are the equally marginalized Zelda and her gay next-door neighbor (Richard Jenkins, the fourth Oscar nominee in an already impeccable cast). As expected, Elisa befriends the mute (and privately peaceful) amphibian man (played by famed man-in-a-rubber-suit actor Doug Jones). This sets the stage for the film’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial/Free Willy-esque plot trajectory. But del Toro’s masterful execution gilds the simple story with a wealth of glittering layers.
First and foremost, the film is jaw-droppingly gorgeous—in a grimy, soggy, government institutional sort of way. With its burnt umber and slate gray color palette, plus its curated collection of artistically cracked tiles and meticulously placed stains, the art direction is reminiscent of the fractured fairy tale work of French filmmakers Caro and Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, Amélie). Beneath its tale of interspecies interconnection, del Toro drops hints of racism and homophobia—molding the entire feature into a story about xenophobia in post-World War II America. On top of that, the director throws in a bunch of nods to classic Hollywood films—from Biblical epics to musicals—just because he can and wants to. Finally—and perhaps most wisely—del Toro flips the script on the original Creature From the Black Lagoon, turning this “monster” from girl-stealing predator to modern-day, fully consensual romantic partner. Yup, The Shape of Water goes there. I mean goes there.
Despite its adult content, The Shape of Water is best viewed through the rainbow-colored prism of a fairy tale. The serious script grounds the film in time and place, addressing such historical realities as institutional racism and Cold War paranoia. But there are enough conveniences and contrivances in the plot that it’s best to look at it as fantasy and not reality. Surrender to the sensual cinematic visuals and the humid air of sexual tension surrounding this Beauty and the Beast-esque fable and you’re sure to be swept up in its particular, peculiar tide.