The Shape of Water
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones
Beautiful. Heartfelt. Lovely. Adjectives not often associated with creature features. But this is where Guillermo del Toro has cornered a specific market with dark fairy tales aimed at mature audiences and has been one of the most interesting directors working. He’s a filmmaker who has forayed into comic book movie territory but has earned a higher reputation for making genre movies that wouldn’t be covered at Comic Con. His films can be weird and wicked but at the center is always a beating heart. His ability to skirt through genre conventions and balance tones juxtapose his ebb and flow between reality and fantasy in his narratives. And perhaps the film which fully embraces the fairy tale model is his newest one The Shape of Water.
If films like Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone suggest existing in the land of fairy, The Shape of Water makes it the literal framework of the film. Opening with the camera slowly tracking in through a room entirely under water, with a voice-over from Richard Jenkins talking about the princess without a voice, we know we’re entering a magical realm. And this princess is a mute woman named Elisa (played wonderfully by Sallie Hawkins). Even as the water subsides, the film’s aesthetic maintains a lush, dreamy look with the teal coloring from the water soaking through every frame. Del Toro’s films are never lacking in the visual department, but with DP Dan Laustsen this might be the most stunning of them all.
Though the film is set in 1960s Baltimore with the backdrop of the Cold War, the scenery has an otherworldly quality. A light hazy glow blankets the neighborhood with a bright movie theater sign illuminating the street where Elisa lives. We get a walk through Elisa’s day-to-day routine, from her custodial work at a research center to watching musicals in her apartment with neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). Though they spend a lot of time together, it is sensed that they are two lonely people drawn together by some unfulfilled desires. Things change for Elisa when an “Asset” is brought into the research center by way of Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) who found it in South America, a creature that the natives referred to as a god. Elisa’s curiosity soon turns into a form of attraction to the creature, feeling whole without the worry of her imperfections.
The monster (played by del Toro’s go-to Doug Jones) will undoubtedly be compared to (and have us fans clamoring for del Toro’s) Creature from the Black Lagoon, though this story has more in common with Beauty & The Beast. On paper, a girl falling for an amphibian monster sounds like it could be absurd, but fortunately we’re guided by the hands of a true master. While the setting checks the boxes on recreating the time period, from cars to clothing, it’s evident that del Toro is a real classic cinema lover, setting the grand movie theater right below Elisa’s apartment and even makes a black-and- white scene with the two dancing like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
It’s not just del Toro’s direction but the performances, specifically Sallie Hawkins’ and Michael Shannon’s that pull off this creative feat. As the lead who never says a word, Hawkins is still capable of commanding the screen with her presence. Her emotional range is entirely in her facial expressions, conveying her every thought right before our eyes. In other of del Toro’s dark fairy tales, the stories center on children and their wide-eyed innocence as they discover their environment. Hawkins possesses that same adolescent curiosity, picking up severed fingers like they’re seashells and leaving eggs in reach of the caged creature when it does emerge out of water. With Shannon, who unsurprisingly excels at being the loud angry villain, we are given the All-American man, complete with his suburban home and brand new cadillac. Over the course of the film, as things get out of hand (quite literally for him) with the creature and pressure mounts and mounts, we see that picturesque image begin to crack.
Characters can easily fall into archetypes, but again this is a fairy tale and del Toro’s adherence to conventions in no way lessens the film. Even when the narrative feels all too familiar, it’s del Toro’s “isms” which catch you by surprise. Though the film carries a tenderness throughout, del Toro is no stranger to graphic violence and throws in some moments when least expected. One of which, the aforementioned severed fingers, is just a reminder that this is not a Disney princess fairytale and is indeed R-rated with its own red band trailer. And along with that, the film does not shy away from the physicality that begins between Elisa and the Asset.
The visual splendor would not be complete without the beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat. The soft piano, moving in and out of the film, lifts it to that enchanting height. The lyrical vibrancy on screen would not work without the music. And it’s in the final minutes when everything that had been working throughout is elevated once again. We return to the underwater, the score soft and intimate, and it becomes an emotional coda whose impact is
greater than most entire films. It’s right here where good becomes great. The sort of sheer singular beauty that cannot be explained or retold but requires the exact visual eye to bring it to life. And we as moviegoers should be so lucky to have an auteur like del Toro. There’s nothing wrong with not getting another Hellboy or Pacific Rim or rescuing the Dark Universe when we can get films like this. — James