When it comes to director Guillermo del Toro, I’ll admit I’m a giddy fangirl. There’s just something about his vision, the way he sees the world and expresses it on film that really resonates with me. I love the way his films are intensely personal and how he always shares something from deep within himself with the audience.
For me, it all started with his first feature, an odd little low-budget vampire movie called Cronos (1994). And yet 20 years later, del Toro has yet to disappoint me. Maybe it’s just that we like all the same eclectic things – including phantasmagorical cinema, film noir, giant monsters, musicals, and Gothic stuff. He’s kept me enthralled all this time with his unique vision, including his brilliant masterwork, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), action-packed Hellboy (2004), the wild ride of Pacific Rim (2013), and the gorgeous and brooding Crimson Peak (2015), his tribute to Gothic romance/horror.
But as much as I love his earlier work, I now I have a new favorite.
I think The Shape of Water will give Pan’s Labyrinth a run for its money as del Toro’s masterpiece. It’s certainly one of the most engaging and artistic movies of 2017. In my opinion, it’s his best film ever – a thoroughly unforgettable experience.
The Shape of Water is a sheer delight, the perfect blending of a monster movie and fairy tale love story. I can almost picture del Toro as a young boy in Mexico seeing Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) for the first time… and I can imagine him wondering “Why didn’t the creature get the girl in the end?”
But del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones, Divergent) have crafted something that transcends genre – it’s something more than just a woman-meets-fish-man love story. There are elements of a Cold War thriller, political and racial commentary, a musical, and even film noir. It’s a fantasy taking place in the context of a threadbare reality at a singular moment in American political and social history.
The setting is Baltimore in 1962.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely mute woman toiling away as a night-shift janitor in a government research facility. Her inability to speak isolates her from the rest of the world with two exceptions – hanging out with her best friend Giles, the bachelor artist in the next apartment, and commiserating with Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her kind co-worker who talks enough for both of them.
It’s revealed that Elisa is an orphan with mysterious origins and scars on her neck that suggest her vocal cords may have been cut. But though she never speaks, she eloquently communicates her emotions through her incredibly expressive face and her own version of sign language.
One night after a bloody incident in the lab, Elisa and Zelda are ordered to clean up the mess in a hurry. Once Elisa discovers the captive fish-man brought to the research facility from the Amazon, she can’t resist returning again and again to visit him. Because they’re just janitors, Elisa and her cleaning crew co-workers are like a part of the scenery, and her “invisibility” allows her to lurk around the lab virtually unseen.
Elisa is powerfully drawn to the creature and eventually wins his trust with hard-boiled eggs, music, and sympathy. Of course, the government bad guys can’t wait to cut him up to see what makes him tick… or failing that, kill him first so the Russians can’t use him.
When Elisa finds out what fate the military has in mind for her new friend, she recruits Giles and Zelda to assist her in a daring rescue scheme.
Like Beauty and the Beast, this is a film about loving “The Other,” a romance that comes from a deep emotional connection that doesn’t need words to communicate.
In fact, I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a monster-human sex scene (at least a consensual one!). But there’s nothing creepy or alien about it. You can appreciate the beauty of the creature and understand why the Amazonian people would worship him as a river god.
In any case, the romance between the two silent lovers is a triumph of imagination – sensual and magical.
The two things that make The Shape of Water so unique (and what I think will garner the majority of the Oscars it’s sure to win next month) are the breathtaking cinematography and the inspired performances.
The film opens with a long tracking shot through a shabby apartment building. Everything is seen through a green filter, and then we realize it’s submerged underwater. As the shot focuses on a sleeping woman, we realize it’s all a dream.
But water is of course the focus of the entire film. Water everywhere, from the submerged apartment in the opening dream sequence, to the boiling egg water, bathing, rain, mop buckets, canals… and even underwater bathroom sex.
There’s a lot of attention focused on the interplay of water, light, and color throughout the film – especially the color green. From the color of the villain’s new ride (“It’s teal!”) to even the soap in the men’s room dispensers, there’s a definite green theme. Del Toro works with a green accent palette in The Shape of Water in the same sort of way he used the color red in Crimson Peak.
Then there are the performances, which are truly a delight, and none more so than Sally Hawkins, who is pure magic as lonely voiceless Elisa, a woman who embodies “otherness.” She absolutely deserves the Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and with Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins also nominated for Best Supporting roles, it’s satisfying to see the Academy acknowledge their achievement.
Spencer is wonderful as Elisa’s kind-hearted co-worker Zelda, who is as talkative as Elisa is silent. Jenkins (who I loved in Six Feet Under and Let Me In) is poignant and appealing as Giles, Elisa’s supportive neighbor and best friend. And of course, Doug Jones doesn’t have to use words to convey profound tenderness, sadness, and love in his role as Elisa’s amphibious lover.
And then there are the Bad Guys. As you might expect in this setting, our villains are evil government/military-type guys and Russian KGB killers, both obsessed with winning the Cold War. Michael Shannon is downright terrifying as Strickland, a cruel and menacing authoritarian military officer who is of course the real monster in this film. And if you think he’s bad, don’t get me started on his vile boss, General Hoyt.
Straddling the good/evil line is double agent Dr. Hoffstetler (subtly played by the versatile Michael Stuhlbarg) who is there to do science and has his own reasons for getting involved in the creature heist.
One symbolic touch that I loved was that the movie theater beneath Elisa’s apartment is showing The Story of Ruth (1960). That reminded me of a familiar biblical quote: “Whither thou goest, I will go.” I hope that means that Elisa and the Amphibian Guy get to live happily ever after.
So in conclusion, if you’re a Guillermo del Toro fan – or even if you’re not – you should go see The Shape of Water. Its exquisite magical realism takes it far beyond the scope of a run-of-the-mill horror film. I promise it’s like nothing you’ve seen before.
I wish I could have expressed my feelings about it as eloquently as film critic Jessica Kiang, who wrote:
“Overridingly you feel lucky — lucky to be watching it, lucky that something so sincerely sweet, sorrowfully scary and surpassingly strange can exist in this un-wonderful world, and desirous of hanging on to as much of its magic for as long as you can after you reemerge back onto dry land.”