The relationship between human and monster comes full circle, in Guillermo Del Toro’s newest adult night-time fairytale, ‘The Shape of Water’. The film is an otherworldly fable set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works as a janitor, lonely and deaf Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment. At the helm is a hard-nosed government doctor (Michael Shannon), who is hell-bent on keeping this devastating secret just that; a secret. As Elisa gets closer, the threat of the unknown becomes even more apparent, setting those closest to her on a trail to discover just what she is hiding. ‘The Shape of Water’ is written and directed by Del Toro, and is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, and adult language.
‘The Shape of Water’ is an enchantment under the sea kind of engagement. Through a love for the tinseltown age of Hollywood cinema, Del Toro instills a lover’s kind of tale that challenges all kinds of barriers both mentally and physically that are pre-judged by the kind of society that seems intrusive to judge who they can and can’t love. But far beyond that, this film dazzled me with an insane amount of versatility in its creative structure that caters to many more genre fans than just those who came looking to be charmed by the connection that Hawkins and Doug Jones (The creature) share for one another. Far beyond its gentle touch in crafting an unorthodox love angle, the film is also compelling in the science fiction department for the kind of rules and worlds that it opens up within its pages. Finally, ‘The Shape of Water’ also triumphs as a heist movie for the first half of the picture that questions just how far those of us would be willing to go to live that feeling for the rest of our lives. Del Toro indulges in these many faces and doesn’t require us to ever choose just one, conjuring up his single most inclusive film to date that doesn’t alienate any spectrum of audience members who are taking it in for whatever reason.
In turning back the hands of time to an almost parallel universe of 1961, Del Toro harvests enough confidence of magic in pop culture cinema and teasing of illuminating levels of green in tickling us visually with this adult bedtime story approach. There is a kind of dreamy, spell-binding quality that exudes itself upon introducing us to this dark setting visually, yet compromising in tone for the airy feeling of whimsical that overtakes us thanks to the power of love and how it can trap us whole. This feels like a screenplay where there’s constantly music in the air, echoing vibrantly the toe-tapping sensation that electrifies one’s spirit in overcoming the paralyzing spell of loneliness. Del Toro interjects scenes and moments from past Hollywood pictures to keep this effect consistently, but it’s in his symbolism for the often times color of jealousy that truly enlightened me. Green is definitely the most dominant color and shade used throughout the film, and early on we find out that this is to represent the future. My take on this is that Del Toro feels very progressive in breaking down the shackles of a definition by love that doesn’t and shouldn’t settle for just one singular meaning. The color is everywhere throughout the film, even generating madness from Shannon’s character every time he sees it. This is clearly to prove and cement that his character represents the world that doesn’t move on with the concepts of change, having very much grown up in a world that caters to one sole demographic.
The performances are riveting from a complete ensemble cast that each bring something vital to the table. Hawkins is a revelation as the muted Elisa, holding the emotional prowess of her character solely in her facial features that are meant to display so much. This is a very difficult thing to do because Hawkins never feels confined to just one emotional response, so her range has to be on point in every scene, and she’s no short of Oscar brilliance for what she does with a coy look. Michael Shannon again continues to be one of my favorite actors going today. Shannon is his usual slimy antagonist for the film, but as this doctor, we start to see the line of distinction between human and animal fade away each time he’s on screen. Michael is every bit as menacing as he’s ever been, and it’s through him when we get a few brunt reminders of the R-rated feature that we’ve gotten ourselves into. Doug Jones (like Hawkins) also does so much with a look, but does so under layers of makeup and prosthetics that fade away everything but Jones signature glassy eyes to the forefront. The chemistry between he and Hawkins warmed my heart and effectively removed the pre-conceived fears that I had for how unusual the love between them would look on-screen.
There’s a lot of love that I have for the script and the way that it slowly began to transfix me into this love story that didn’t feel forced or phony by how it was presented. These two people are definitely outcasts by a society that demeans them for their anything-but-handicap. It’s in that comparison where we learn front-and-center why these two share such a tender sentiment that presents them as souls with bodies and not just bodies with souls. In this regard, I felt a strong taste of films like ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon’ as well as ‘King Kong’. Two films also set-up by this conundrum, but held prisoner from their release dates that kept them from going all the way. ‘The Shape of Water’ goes all the way, and it does it in a way that is unapologetic for what it shows. If you feel awkward, then your stances on love probably need updating. For it’s not the monster, but the depiction of an outcast by society who deserves the same gifts that anyone else does. During this whole thing, there’s also the age of paranoia playing out with the Russians and where they play into this creature. This proved to me that the film wasn’t just resting on the laurels of being a love story, and that Del Toro uses just as much emphasis in the world around them as he does with the couple in their own bubble that no one can touch. What very small problem that I had with the film was during the third act when it feels like it becomes more about Shannon’s character instead of Hawkins and Jones. This inevitably won’t bother much people, but I feel like some more emphasis was needed from Hawkins point of view in the inevitable confrontation that she must face. This isn’t a major problem, but it stands out from the first two acts that are so structurally sound that the first 90 minutes flew by like a gust of wind.
THE VERDICT – If it’s a controversial quote that you want, then it’s one you will get; this is Guillermo Del Toro’s single best film to date. ‘The Shape of Water’ confidently balances enough absorbing style and poignant substance in the ineffective way that his previous few films have petered away with. Hawkins is a whirlwind revolution, offering a slice of innocent humanity to her hushed exterior that makes her unavoidable to not fall in love with. The film is a purified beauty of Del Toro’s visionary compass that proves he can still swim with the best of them.