Guillermo del Toro is one of our most distinctive filmmakers. One of the things that makes him so is his blend of whimsy and violence onscreen, juxtaposing childlike innocence with the viciousness of the adult world. He’s a modern fable maker, the cinematic version of a Grimm’s fairy tale. He did it in his 2006 masterpiece PAN’S LABYRINTH, telling the tale of a little girl who immerses herself in a fantasy world to deflect the coming fascism of 1944 Spain. Here, Del Toro treads in similar territory as a child-woman creates a romance with a sea monster against the frosty backdrop of the Cold War in 1962. The name of the film is THE SHAPE OF WAHTER and it’s almost as successful as PAN’S LABYRINTH. It certainly is one of the year’s most provocative, must-see films.
It’s so provocative because Del Toro doesn’t take the POV of a child for this one, instead choosing a protagonist who may be childlike, but she is a fully mature woman in every way. Despite the youthful idealism and wide-eyed sense of wonder that Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) exhibits, she is a complex adult. She’s handicapped, in her 40’s, and full of piss and vinegar. Elisa may not speak, but she lives out loud and always has a lot to say. One of the ways she is shown expressing herself in this film is carnally. Within 10 minutes of the beginning of the story, she is shown drawing a bath and masturbating to climax. This is part of Elisa’s morning ritual. She may not have all the senses, but she is a sensualist 100 percent.
What makes this all the more provocative is that Elisa is not a typical glamorous movie lead. She's mousy and yet she still enjoys her sexuality. Elisa has many other gifts beyond such self-awareness as that. She speaks in sign language, and is a great listener, as well as an observer of all that crosses her path. This is a woman who takes time to note beauty in ways big and small, enjoying a humble world as if it's a kingdom of riches. She delights in seeing a fellow bus passenger carrying his big birthday cake home, and loves the lights of the city she gazes upon during each commute. Elisa loves her best friend too, a closeted commercial artist named Giles, played by Richard Jenkins. It's also refreshing to see a gay man portrayed onscreen who’s not some young stud, but a senior in the autumn of his years. These two make up their own sort of ‘lonely hearts club’, sharing conversations (he can sign!), takeout, and even a few dance steps they've learned from watching a musical on TV together.
It’s a small world, but a good one for Elisa, albeit a bit unfulfilled. Her work doesn’t help much. She’s a nighttime janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center in Baltimore in the early 60’s, and every night is merely a series of mops and waste baskets. Her sassy fellow custodian Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is a joy to her, but there are few others around at that hour to connect with.
Then one day, a new “asset” is brought into the facility for safekeeping, courtesy of by-the-book government prick Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). That changes Elisa’s life forever. The asset is an amphibian man creature, snatched out of the rivers of South America. This tall and lean Amphibious Man (Doug Jones) is sort of a kinder, gentler version of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Elisa discovers him in a water containment tank and they soon develop a profound relationship. At first, it's based on her pity as he is wounded regularly by Strickland hoping to control the alien with an electric cattle prod. But soon, Elisa and the creature will bond over so much more. They both feel exceptionally alien in normal society and that makes them soulmates.
Elisa shares her hardboiled eggs with him, as well as the big band records she listens to on her turn table while scrubbing the joint. Here again, Del Toro juxtaposes the childlike right up against adult tastes. Both characters love simple, child favorites like eggs, yet they swoon equally to the sophisticated jazzy trumpet solos in a 16-piece orchestra. And as they get closer, the Amphibian Man makes Elisa swoon in ways that Glenn Miller cannot.
A burgeoning sexual attraction starts to become apparent between them and it turns THE SHAPE OF WATER definitively adult. Even as Elisa works to free the beast from his bondage, her chastity is as much a part of her motivation as her charity. She wants to save this creature, but also, save him for herself.
One of the great things about THE SHAPE OF WATER is how it continually confounds the audience with such complex themes. Not only does it “go there”, but it also turns a number of fable movie clichés on their ear along the way. For starters, this movie is very violent as evidenced by Strickland's electric prodding of the creature as well as his bullying of the employees at the facility. Then, the big breakout scene comes halfway through the film, not as an inevitable climax which is were it would be placed in most action films. Why, even the sneaky spy at the institute, the Russian-backed Hoffsteldter (Michael Stuhlbarg), is a guy who turns good way before you'd expect to see such a turn. He even helps Elisa and her love escape.
Del Toro has, ahem, bigger fish to fry here, so that is why he's not interested in dragging out his narrative. He wants to get to the core of the film, an expanded love story in the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST vein, although he's very explicit. A number of scenes showcase a nude Hawkins and the creature exploring each other's bodies while swishing around in the tub.There’s even a great, outlandish love scene where Elisa fills the room with water to give them more room to play. It's sexy and audacious as hell.
Their love story becomes infectious. An inspired Giles manages to work up the courage to explore his own sexuality asking out the male soda jerk he has a crush on. Zelda gets in touch with her feminism as she asserts her voice at home and puts her obstinate husband in his place. And even Strickland is indirectly affected as Elisa's relationship with the creature forces him to unwillingly evaluate his masculinity as well as his marriage to a long-suffering wife.
And all of this works, not only because Del Toro commits to earnestly telling it, but because Hawkins gives such a courageous and nuanced performance. Hers is easily one of year’s best, and she was just awarded Best Actress by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association over the weekend. Hawkins magnificently embodies every part of Elisa, from her confidence to her sexuality to her fears. And she does it all without uttering a word except for lip-synching a tune in a fantasy song-and-dance sequence. For my money, the two most sensual female performances on film this year exist without any of the typical female lead clichés. Instead, both Elisa and Diana Prince from WONDER WOMAN are so attractive in their stories because of their more humanistic qualities: earnestness, being guileless, and acting with an open heart. Who wouldn’t fall in love with either of them - man, woman or beast?
There are many other wonderful attributes to call out here too. Alexandre Desplat’s whimsical score is lush and lovely, the production design could easily take this year’s Oscar. Jenkins too should be a factor in the race for Best Supporting Actor. However, Del Toro does do a few things unfortunately that mar his piece in small but significant ways. Octavia Spencer is wonderful as Zelda, as she always is, but the veteran character actress has played that too-smart-for-the-room service role many times before. Similar typecasting with Michale Shannon as the villain makes that choice a bit on-the-nose too. Shannon can do these kinds of roles in his sleep, and his performance here resembles the character he played in HBO's BOARDWALK EMPIRE entirely too much.
The Russian story also seems to gild Del Toro's lily a bit obviously as well. Do both super powers need to be such obvious monstrosities? Of course, Del Toro is illustrating that the trues monsters are in the government, not water tubs or tanks. And shame on him for bringing a pet onscreen only to egregiously kill it off in a grotesque horror film way. The film is already a bit stomach-churning in its portrayal of violence, so why the need to show a beheaded cat on top of it all?
THE SHAPE OF WATER manages to overcome such flaws though and stand as a uniquely wonderful achievement. Del Toro is one of our most distinct voices in cinema today, a filmmaker willing to butt fable up against realism, defend a world he also decries, and present the USA populace as people capable of both idealism and fascism.
THE SHAPE OF WATER may have trouble finding its audience, what with its complex juxtapositions, but it should be seen as a involving and important period piece that, once again, comments brilliantly on our modern world. It strongly condemns those that oppress like Strickland, using the government to belittle and dehumanize humanity. God knows such sins have come back in this country bigly these past few years and Del Toro makes no bones about his despising of such government bullying. His film here is wonderfully entertaining, yes, but it also targets oppressors as pointedly as that electric cattle prod.