'The Shape of Water'
Throughout his strange career, Guillermo del Toro has made it a mission to fuse horror and fairy tales until they become indistinguishable. The guy has done a remarkable job weaving those dreams together so far, but something about his latest feature ‘The Shape of Water’ feels even more special.
Fully embracing his latent whimsy while sticking true to his horror tendencies, del Toro has grafted a genuinely magical romance and ode to outsiders. That he does so in what is also essentially his take on the ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ is just plain fantastic. It’s hard to say after first impressions if this is his finest film, but it’s quite possible.
Sally Hawkins stars as Eliza, a mute woman who lives above a movie theater and works at a secret government base. She has a content and mildly whimsical existence, including a friendship with quirky closeted artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) and wisecracking co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). One eventful day on the job, Eliza and Zelda meet not one, but two monsters. One is a literal monster, a strange Black Lagoon type creature played by Doug Jones and studied by Michael Stuhlbarg’s gentle scientist. The other is Michael Shannon playing a nasty federal agent in charge of that creature and a walking bomb waiting to explode (i.e. a “Michael Shannon” type). From there, Eliza and the monster bond and fall in love. This is a Guillermo del Toro movie after all.
Given his irrepressible interest in fantasy and fairy tales, it’s actually remarkable how little whimsy has snuck into del Toro’s work before now. Magical moments are usually a misdirect to set up a horrible twist. ‘The Shape of Water’ sees del Toro embracing his inner romantic. He has described the movie as his musical, and the heightened connections and symbols certainly fit (as well as one particular scene). An apt comparison might be a film somewhere between ‘Amélie’ and ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’. The movie mingles the classic tragic monster tale and Hollywood romance until they seem indistinguishable. It’s a beautiful ode to life and love that also happens to be a gory horror yarn from time-to-time, as well as a Cold War thriller, a magical realist fairy tale, and probably a few dozen other things that were tough to notice on first viewing.
As with all Guillermo del Toro movies, every image is layered with gorgeous detail and meaning. It’s exquisitely designed, always with purpose and without ever undercutting the simple and direct emotional narrative. The monster is an astounding mix of human performance, makeup and CGI that blends seamlessly. Even the actors without makeup deliver stunning work, from Jenkins’ heartbreaking scene-stealing (a reasonable descriptor for his entire career), Spencer’s deceptively powerful supporting role, and Shannon at his most menacing and broken. At the center is Hawkins delivering one of her most deeply relatable and beautiful roles without uttering a word.
‘The Shape of Water’ is an extraordinary cinematic magic trip. It pulls you in with genre entertainment, tickles the heart with human sentiment, viscerally scares, resonates on deeper thematic levels, and is a just plain stunning work of art. It might be Guillermo del Toro’s best film, certainly his best in the English language at the very least. With any luck, it will be treated as a worthy work of art despite a lack of subtitles. It’s rare for horror and fantasy films to be recognized without them (and del Toro has admitted that’s partly why he chose to make ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ in Spanish despite having a Hollywood career at that point). After only one viewing, the film already feels special. It’s a richly rewarding and entertaining experience that will hopefully strike a chord with mass audiences this holiday season.