The Shape of Water constantly finds ways to contradict itself. It is a story that has been told literally a thousand times, and yet feels original to the point you wonder how the hell anyone came up with it. It’s strikingly simple and yet monstrously complex. It’s remarkably sweet and outrageously over-the-top. And in spite of all of this, I can’t think of the last time a film was this fantastically made across the board. Maybe La La Land (also a tribute to Hollywood days gone by), but although I prefer it just a tad, even Damien Chazelle‘s magnum opus wasn’t this masterful in every category. By taking a step back and exploring the themes that make him tick, Guillermo del Toro has pulled off a master class in filmmaking, and one I suspect people will be talking about for years to come.
Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center in Baltimore in the year 1962. As a baby, she had her vocal box destroyed, leaving her scarred and mute. Lonely and unable to speak, she centers her life around a strict pattern, waking up in the evening, watching old movie musicals with her closeted neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), showing up to work (late) with her only other friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and reflecting on her loneliness in the bathtub later that day. However, her pattern is changed when the facility becomes the home to a strange sea creature known as the Asset (Doug Jones). Through her cleaning, Elisa ends up falling for the Asset, and plans to break him out with the help of her friends, even if it means incurring the wrath of Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the man behind capturing the creature and who will stop at nothing to see it killed.
Guillermo del Toro has always worked best when he builds in the world of fables. Essentially, his films are meant to convey the horrors of living in a dangerous time in a certain place, as well as telling a simple story with simple themes (think love, coming of age, etc.), all while utilizing the symbolism of fairy tale imagery. And like his best film, Pan’s Labyrinth, that’s exactly what he does here. He uses fairy tale mythology to tell a story about doing the right thing and fighting for love, even when the world around you can be a truly terrifying place. There’s nothing terrifying in the Asset’s appearance or behavior (barring one ill-fated scene with a cat), but there is something terrifying about the open racism, homophobia, sexism, and fearful hatred going on in society. Del Toro finds ways both subtle and overt to explore these themes and address hatred in the world. It could be as subtle as a character we think we’re supposed to like suddenly turning on one of the protagonists right after openly ridiculing and condemning an African-American couple, or it could be as blatant as, well, anything involving Richard Strickland. As with all fairy tales, each character is an archetype for something larger – Elisa is the Princess, the Asset is the Beast with a heart of gold, Giles and Zelda are the funny sidekicks, and Strickland is the Villain, with the V capitalized for emphasis. Strickland is, on the surface, already a fascinating, monstrous character; a dangerous buffoon, if you will (think Gaston in Beauty and the Beast). From the get-go, Strickland is demonstrated to be a sexist, racist assh*le, saying and doing the worst possible thing, either to infuriate or amuse the audience. We feel anger when he abuses the Asset or threatens Elisa, but we laugh when his re-attached fingers begin to noticeably stink or he has terrible, awkward sex with his wife (nothing brings us more joy as people than watching villains be embarrassing). However, Strickland is much more than a punching bag or a menace. He’s the dark underside of the American Dream. He’s been sold a promise throughout history that it was his God-given right as a White Male to have dominion over women, to be superior to the African-Americans, and to have a good-paying job and the Proper American Car (the Cadillac, obviously). Despite the fact he clearly loathes his suburban house, suburban wife, and suburban kids, he does it all because it is necessary to fulfill his role. After all, unlike the Asset, “he was made in the Lord’s image” (unlike Zelda, he makes sure to point out).
But what’s perhaps most fascinating of the film is the way it deconstructs years of American filmmaking. Look at our most popular genres over the years: the musical, the creature feature, the rom-com, and the heist. Each of these genres makes an appearance here, only to be turned on the head of their original purpose. For example, the creature feature usually predominantly features a white hero battling some sort of ugly monster that’s infatuated with a beautiful woman. However, what this film presupposes is “What if she actually loved that monster back? And what if the hero was just a major douchebag keeping lovers separated?” It tears down everything we know about the genre, and even raises questions about the nature of love, as the relationship would certainly be synonymous with homosexual relationships, interracial relationships, and so many more. So too does the film turn other genres on their head. The musical, the rom-com, and the heist all predominantly focus on men pulling off a daring heist and women falling in love with charming fellows, all at the goading of their minor-role black and gay friends. Here, not only is the heist pulled off by two women (one black and one white) and a gay man, but the white woman is mute, leaving the dialogue to lay on the shoulders of the gay man and the black woman. Not only does this turn everything about these genres on their head, it makes a powerful statement about the 1960s, a time when these groups were just starting out their struggle to find their voice. The Shape of Water never criticizes these films or genres – indeed, del Toro and company clearly love those films as much as Elisa, who uses them as inspiration, and whose love of musicals inspire several of the film’s best scenes. Instead, it just uses them as a starting point to say something deeper about love, the Other, and finding your voice.
However, while these themes are certainly interesting, and well worth exploring, I’m more fascinated by how across-the-board perfect this entire film is. The way that del Toro and crew have woven the sheer aesthetic throughout the film is truly remarkable. I mean, from the get-go, water is seen as a motif – most of Elisa’s activities involve water, from the cooking of hard-boiled eggs to the cleaning her job entails of to the self-care seen in the bath, and the wounds on her neck that mark her as Other are pretty clearly meant to represent gills. However, it goes beyond that, as the breathtaking cinematography give off the illusion of water whether the characters are truly submerged or not. I mean, look at the color scheme – it is filled with a symphony of water-based palettes, like blues, greens, teals, and even the reds of blood. The entire film oozes whimsicality, not unlike the great French film Amélie, and yet it somehow simultaneously refuses to be whimsical. As for the editing, the film borrows from the Golden Age of Hollywood, using classical editing tricks and traits in order to give the film a timeless feel, as well as to allow it to flow like, well, water. The sound design astonishingly match-cuts aural cues from scene to scene, from primal grunting to rhythmic pounding (the latter of which is perhaps one of my favorite subtle touches of the year). The moments that don’t rely on the sound design allow for Alexandre Desplat’s soothing, endearing score to push through, charming us with soothing whistles and classical spy undertone. And as for the visual aesthetic, del Toro certainly understands the lesson of E.T. and Beauty and the Beast that you gain empathy through making the creature creepy and adorable, and the Asset is certainly just that. From the top down, I’m just in awe of how meticulous this whole thing really is.
And then there’s the cast, who make up one of the best ensembles of the year. Sally Hawkins is simply remarkable as Elisa, finding emotion in her face and putting it forth with each flourish of the hand as she signs her words or tap of the foot as she imagines herself in the musicals she’s adored. It’s a tremendous performance, and one for the ages, Audrey Tautou by way of Marlee Matlin. Meanwhile, Doug Jones gives one of his best-ever motion capture performances, bringing the heart and soul to the Amphibious Man who becomes enamored with the only person to ever show him kindness, and to win her heart in return. He’s cute, funny, loving, and awkward, all at the same time. As mentioned above, Michael Shannon gives one of his greatest performances as Dick Strickland, delivering lines only the way he can (to describe the fingers he has left should he lose the two that were reattached, he relishes in a line that may be one of the funniest of the entire film) while also using his appearance and demeanor to terrorize the hell out of us. Richard Jenkins’ role essentially amounts to the gay best friend, but boy, do I love his take on the character. Watching him try to flirt is absolutely hysterical, and he’s the comic relief the film desperately needs. And Octavia Spencer solidifies herself as the next Tom Hanks, in that she plays the same role every time, and yet a) we all want to see it, and b) she’s still remarkable at it. Watching her play the talkative half of the relationship with Elisa is fun to watch, and quite frankly, I wish there was more of her. Michael Stuhlbarg is always reliable, and that continues to be the case here as he plays the mysterious Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, the only doctor at the lab to care about the Asset. And while his role isn’t very big, David Hewlett makes a lot out of a small role as Fleming, Strickland’s lackey. I cackled every damn time he came onscreen. Honestly, this film has no weak links in front of the camera.
Honestly, on a technical level, The Shape of Water is absolutely a marvel. Even if I didn’t quite make it all the way there emotionally, this is still filmmaking of the highest order. The script is powerful, the direction flawless, the design legendary, and the cast top-notch. It’s a film both of its time and timeless, like Casablanca or Dr. Strangelove. I’m not quite sure it’s better than Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone, but del Tor has outdone himself here, crafting one of the best films of the year, and one I’m quite certain we won’t be hearing the last of.