'The Shape of Water'
Guillermo del Toro’s latest film is a stunning achievement and easily one of his finest works. At once a profoundly personal fairy tale love story and a perversely entertaining monster flick, ‘The Shape of Water’ is destined to be loved by those who live their lives and find their loves on the fringes.
Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, a mute janitor in a mythical Cold War town. She lives her life by routine like an egg timer, silently accepting a hidden existence in a world that either barely notices her or snidely dismisses her. She lives above a movie theater and in a world of dreams. Her closest friends are a closeted artist roommate (the great Richard Jenkins) and a similarly belittled co-worker (Octavia Spencer playing an Octavia Spencer type). Elisa’s life changes when a new agent (Michael Shannon) working at the super secret government base that she cleans brings in a strange new creature to study. (The odd merman very much resembles a certain creature from a black lagoon and is played by del Toro’s monster regular Doug Jones). Elisa finds herself strangely drawn to the creature. Soon, a relationship forms that will change her life. Despite all the monsters and paranoia, ‘The Shape of Water’ is a love story that only del Toro could deliver.
As always, every inch of the world that appears on screen has been meticulously curated and designed by del Toro. Though it takes place in a specific moment in American history with all the political paranoia that implies, the film truly occurs in a fairy tale landscape found somewhere in the director’s mind. Everything is heightened. Nothing is real. It’s a world of rejects and outcasts dismissed by the established power structure who find a certain magic in each other. That sounds corny, but the film also contains enough thrills and monstrous behavior to avoid disappearing into manipulative romantic claptrap.
Much like how del Toro’s ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ thrust escapist fantasy against actual horrors for metaphoric and visceral effect, ‘The Shape of Water’ plays off the repression and paranoia of the Cold War and pre-civil rights revolution era with a misunderstood monster tossed in to hammer it home. Everyone in the movie is an outsider hiding something and facing societal rejection. The only one who fits the establishment is Michael Shannon’s character, who’s more monstrous than the merman he tortures. The metaphors are big, but they suit the emotional rollercoaster of the tale perfectly. The themes fit into the strange rhythms of the narrative without overwhelming the beautiful surface, and the characters are complex enough to be worthy of the investment.
Jenkins and Spencer are heartbreakingly sincere in ways that tickle the heartstrings. Shannon has never been more terrifying and somehow makes using a urinal as intimidating as wielding a cattle prod. The monster is gorgeously designed and portrayed silently with considerable heart by Jones beneath the mounds of makeup. Above all, Sally Hawkens holds it together, carrying the film entirely with her face. She makes you fall for her and root for her without a word spoken. The love story between her and Jones is one for the ages, even though one of them is a sea monster with a taste for cats.
Guillermo del Toro is infatuated with this material and lets his imagination roam free. Every set, costume, and effect is meticulously designed to his specifications. There’s no sign of any interference on the storytelling. It’s as pure of a personal expression as he’s ever brought to the screen, and the director relishes the freedom, even sneaking in a musical number without it feeling like a gratuitous indulgence.
The film has scares and gore and action and suspense and enough sensory-prodding filmmaking devices to keep viewers alert and thrilled. However, at the heart of the story is a passionate plea for love and compassion as the most vital of human traits that can save and support us all. To make a modern movie with that message that actually resonates is a miracle. To do so with a movie that co-stars a sea monster and features a man tearing off his own fingers is even more impressive. ‘The Shape of Water’ is one of the finest films of the year and also of del Toro’s career. It’s something that will stick around and warm the hearts of all the weirdoes of the world for years to come.