Written by: Guillermo del Toro (screenplay), Vanessa Taylor (screenplay)
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, and Richard Jenkins
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"If we do nothing, neither are we."
In regards to the horror crowd, Guillermo del Toro has always and emphatically been One of Us: a Monster Kid who seeks refuge in the surreal and beauty in the grotesque. Even as an adult, a childlike sense of wonder often guides his work, no matter how bleak it sometimes manages to be, allowing him to throw all caution to the wind and indulge his fantastical whims. You never sense that any of his films have been compromised because they take you to places only his mind could possibly dream up—enchanting dreamscapes filled with terror, wonder, beauty, and evil. To watch a del Toro film is to plumb the depths of humanity and all its glorious imperfections, and it just so happens that he often sees monsters as the best conduit for doing so.
He sees the lonely, tragic longing in classic misunderstood monsters and regards them as fellow travelers on a spiritual journey, so much so that he pushes his childlike obsessions to the extreme. Not content to simply identify with The Creature from the Black Lagoon’s fascination with a woman that could never truly love him, del Toro fantasizes even further: what it might it look like if such a romance weren’t so ill-fated after all? What if this fascination could somehow be reciprocated and serve as the launching point to explore the human condition?
That’s the basis for The Shape of Water, del Toro’s brilliant new entry into both his own monster oeuvre and the conversation humanity’s been wrestling with for time immemorial. Just what can we learn by confronting the inexplicable, “monstrous” quantities of the world, and what can it reveal about the human condition?
His answer is a familiar refrain, and one that’s barely concealed at that, as his hand it tipped almost immediately with an opening narration promising “tale of love and loss—and the monster who tried to destroy it all.” We soon learn that the love is an unconventional bond between mute janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and a mysterious, bizarre fish-man creature (Doug Jones) that’s housed at the research facility where she works. The monster, we quickly discover, is Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the facility’s ruthless head of security, a callous brute whose idea of order involves the liberal brandishing of a cattle prod. Thinking only of the creature’s possible use to the rival Russians, his main priority is keeping it subjugated until the research is finished, at which point it’ll be casually disposed of. After watching the fishman—and, yes, her potential lover—suffer for long enough, she hatches an escape plan with her own band of fellow, overlooked misfits.
At its heart, this is what The Shape of Water is: an enthralling fairy tale that pits a group of outcasts against the might of the American military-industrial complex. While the latter largely takes its form in Strickland—who is basically also the avatar for mankind’s worst impulses—the film thrives on this underdog dynamic. You grow to love Elisha and her ragtag crew—which comes to include co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her kindly neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), and a sympathetic Russian spy Bob (Michael Stuhlbarg)—not because they’re pitiful but because they refuse to be downtrodden. When confronted with an extraordinary situation, they choose to embrace the chance to make a difference not only for this creature but for themselves. After spending their entire lives being overlooked as The Other, they find a kindred spirit in need of help and give it. I can think of few stories more vital to our times than this, and del Toro (alongside co-writer Vanessa Taylor) have realized it with rich, vibrant potency.
Hawkins is transcendent as Elisa, a lovely, vulnerable woman whose life is initially defined by routine and loneliness. We watch as she boils eggs, explores self-intimacy in the bathtub, and endures long rides to work, with each moment revealing her vulnerabilities and longing. Though she’s not capable of traditional speech, she effortlessly communicates a deep, soulful aching for some kind of meaningful connection. Try as she might, she can’t quite find it—sure, she’ll listen as Zelda prattles on about her ungrateful husband or indulge Giles’s rantings working in the world of advertising art, but it’s obvious none of it is fulfilling. Hers is a life of doldrums—not that she lets that keep her down, and Hawkins’s performance is wonderful because she still injects this character with a sense of life and grace. Small moments—such as when Elisa taps down the hall in a recitation of the Old Hollywood musical she’s just seen on TV—reveal that she hasn’t let the mundane existence suffocate her. She’s just waiting for a spark—even if it has to take the form of a goddamn mutant fish.
Jones is expectedly marvelous as the unnamed creature, whose creates a striking presence despite a relatively limited screen time. For much of the film, he’s kept up under lock and key, either subjugated at the facility or hidden away after his daring escape. Yet still, Jones realizes the creature’s curiosity, fear, and, ultimately, that same longing for a connection that Elisa seeks. No matter how absurd it may seem, there’s genuine tenderness between these two characters that escalates to heart-swelling moments of triumph, all of them captured with a dizzying, love-struck camera by del Toro’s sweeping lens. He dares to find the beauty in this bizarre relationship, and you never doubt in the utterly transcendent joy it brings these two characters.
The Shape of Water would be an utter triumph on the strength of that relationship alone; however, I can’t help but come back to how rich the platonic relationships are, too. Arguably, it’s these folks that really form the film’s heart and soul: while del Toro obviously muses upon the nature of humanity and love through Elisa’s relationship with the fish-man, the bigger picture reveals itself through the trio of characters surrounding her. All of them are wonderful in their resolute, dignified quest to simply do the right thing. All of them have everything to lose here: Zelda practically has a target on her back as an African-American woman during a period in history where the police were deploying brute force against her people in Southern streets just for having the gall to march for their right to exist.
Stuhlbarg’s undercover Russian agent (it wouldn’t a Cold War thriller without one) is likewise gambling with his life when he refuses to comply with his commander’s orders to destroy the creature. In what could easily be a flashy, overwrought role, Stuhlbarg opts to go small to find the quiet, noble poise of a man everyone overlooks, a choice that makes both narrative and thematic sense: this guy’s supposed to go largely unseen because that’s his job, but that invisibility also reinforces del Toro’s preoccupation with underdogs upending a corrupt system. Some of the film’s best moments come when these co-conspirators can barely conceal their Cheshire cat grins when Strickland launches an investigation into the creature’s disappearance. Such moments bring their own strand of triumph, distinctly different from the type Elisa finds with her lover but heartwarming all the same.
The most complex of Elisa’s accomplices is her roommate Giles, a finicky chatterbox whose anxieties are hard to miss when they’re clumped on his head in the shape of an obvious hairpiece. Jenkins is incredible here, immediately drawing the audience in with a gregarious front before revealing another quietly wounded soul in Giles. We come to learn that he’s a gay man whose artwork is no longer being courted my major ad agencies, a turn of events he tries to take in stride but struggles to accept. Mostly, he just wants to spend his days holed up watching Old Hollywood classics on TV (despite living right above a ground, vintage movie house) or cozying up next to a slice of key lime pie at a local diner. He has ulterior motives there, too, as he’s keen on the clerk working behind the counter. A shot of Giles’s fridge stuffed with half-eaten slices of pies is one of those small, playful del Toro moments that reveal so much about a character. Likewise, it’s quite a revealing moment early in the film when he catches a glimpse of footage from those heinous Birmingham protests and is quick to have Elisa hurry it off of his screen.
You can’t help but somehow doubt him at this point—though you know his intentions are pure and that he doesn’t want to see the footage because it disgusts him, you can also catch a glimpse of exasperation. “Out of sight, out of mind” you might as well hear him say in his eagerness to be distracted by whatever might roll onto his screen next. It’s a crucial little moment that lays the groundwork for Giles’s eventual arc, which is as vital as any in the film. During the course of the film—but especially, it should be noted when he experiences bigotry first-hand during a gut-wrenching scene—he becomes more empathetic towards the plight of both his fellow Americans and the creature he’s asked to help free. I couldn’t help but think about Martin Luther King Jr’s admonishment of white moderates as Giles’s tale unfolded: here was a man whose heart is clearly in the right place but seems to be content with the existence of suffering so long as it doesn’t really affect him. It’s an unfortunately resonate arc that continues to resound today, though del Toro does eventually reveal the power of empathy and the importance of actually taking action against the institutions that form a blight on the republic—if not the world.
Because make no mistake: The Shape of Water is at least partially a call to arms, an anxious plea to challenge the rigid, systemic bigotry and hatred embedded in our society like a sickness, particularly the strain that impossibly oozes like a sludge directly to the top. It’s no coincidence that Strickland wears the face of the white male patriarchy that’s often been so instrumental in maintaining rigged, unfair systems like some sort of sick perpetual motion machine. Shannon does go big in this role, playing this lunatic with all the nuance of a Looney Toons villain, and rightfully so: his bug-eyed menace is both astoundingly frightening but also pathetic all at once, a reminder that the power these men wield is arbitrary at best. Every detail we glean about Strickland only serves heighten what an alpha heel he is, from his obsession with a big, teal Cadillac to the way he imposes himself on his wife during sex. All of it is an act of obvious, cartoonish overcompensation, allowing del Toro to undercut the toxic hyper-masculinity of this era.
Pointedly set in the 1960s, a supposed gilded age when “men could be men” and the country was allegedly fulfilling its destiny as a “shining city upon a hill,” The Shape of Water similarly seeks to challenge this false ideal of American exceptionalism. Del Toro and DP Dan Laustsen initially seem content to play along with the fantasy by crafting a slightly unreal, almost dreamy vision of this era, soaking the proceedings in heightened, aquatic hues. Nostalgia seeps through at every corner, whether it’s in the form of classic TV shows or the cozy Americana threaded through Giles’s favorite diner. You almost could fool yourself into buying the illusion, but del Toro is quick to shatter it by capturing stark, shocking acts of violence perpetrated against the creature, a pattern of abuse that dovetails into exposing this era’s seedy underbelly. Even more disheartening are the more grounded, historical abuses of power: a black couple being turned away from a diner, with a gay man being shuttled out right behind them; a woman being helplessly shushed during a disturbingly aggressive sex act; crowds of African-Americans having hoses turned against them in the streets. When ignorant fools claim they want to make America great again, this is what they really want.
Del Toro will have none of it though: perhaps more than anything, The Shape of Water is a staunch refusal to yield to cynicism. Yes, that ugly reality exists—and continues to persist; however, that doesn’t mean you allow it to overwhelm you. You, too, must persist (and resist), whether it’s through big, bold acts like the creature’s escape or smaller, personal ones. Sometimes, resistance is more intimate, taking the form of a loving embrace or finding the words to express yourself—even if they just take the form of an imagined old Hollywood song and dance number. It’s little surprise that one of del Toro’s refuges here is the cinema; if there’s one thing all Monster Kids know, it’s that this is how we cope with the ugliness of the world—by sympathizing with and embracing the tales of the downtrodden, no matter how bizarre, violent, or, in this case, erotic they may be. His infectious sympathy for and childlike wonder when confronting monsters has been a common thread throughout del Toro’s career, and this feels like the movie he’s been building towards his entire life. Exquisitely fashioned, yet still achingly, sometimes messily sincere, The Shape of Water is both a deeply personal expression and a universal dream for a better world that's hard to imagine right now. Don't let that stop you, though.
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