May 2023

The Shape of Water (2017)

DIRECTOR: Guillermo Del Toro

CAST: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones


The Shape of Water, offbeat writer-director Guillermo Del Toro’s latest offering, is essentially an adult romantic fairy tale wrapped up in an homage to 1950s-era monster movies.  It’s weird and artsy—two qualities that should be expected in a Del Toro film—but also earnest and heartfelt, and speaks to Del Toro being a romantic at heart.

The film is set during the 1960s at the height of the Cold War.  Mute cleaning lady Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) mopping floors and scrubbing toilets at a top-secret military research facility.  Then one day Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon in full “Michael Shannon” mode) and Dr. Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) deliver the facility’s most prized “asset”, a vaguely humanoid amphibian creature (Doug Jones in a monster suit) kept chained in an oversized tub of water.  Elisa is curious and sneaks in to get a closer look, establishing a fledgling bond with the abused creature by offering him eggs, finding he is responsive to music and sign language.  Eventually, when she learns Strickland’s superiors have ordered the creature to be dissected for closer examination, she concocts a rescue plan.

The Shape of Water starts as a slow burn.  We are introduced to Elisa by her daily routine revealing her lonely, solitary life, her only companionship her older artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins).  Gradually, she and the nameless “asset”—listed in the credits only as “Amphibian Man”—form a tentative bond.  The pace kicks in when the rescue gets underway, but that’s only step one of the journey.  After smuggling him out of the facility with the help of Giles, Zelda, and Dr. Hofstetler, Elisa keeps him in her bathtub while awaiting the rains that will flood the canal enough to release him into the sea, and meanwhile an inter-species romance unfolds.  But the longer the creature is hidden in her apartment, his health begins to fail, and the danger grows of Strickland finding him.  There are other plot strands—the so-called Dr. Hofstetler is a Russian mole who has infiltrated the facility to either steal the creature or kill it to thwart the American military research, who has grown conflicted about his mission and sympathizes with Elisa and company—and all of the plotlines and characters will collide on the dark, rain-soaked night when the canal floods and opens to the sea.

Not only does the “impossible romance” between Elisa and the creature make it apparent Del Toro is a fanciful romantic at heart—has there been an inter-species romance in any high-profile movie besides Avatar?—but The Shape of Water is also a loving homage to 1950s monster movies, and to film in general.  The creature is intentionally directly modeled after The Creature From the Black Lagoon—Del Toro suited up Doug Jones in three hours of makeup and a body suit rather than relying on CGI or motion capture—and Elisa’s apartment sits directly above a movie theater (we’re shown clips of various period films).  The third act also bears a passing resemblance to ET with a gang of plucky underdogs smuggling a creature out of the clutches of the government (albeit including a romance between the creature and one of the humans, and Michael Shannon is considerably more villainous than Peter Coyote).  All of Del Toro’s loves are present and accounted for, indicating The Shape of Water is a heartfelt passion project.  The movie also makes it clear its sympathies are firmly with the marginalized minorities.  The creature himself is the most obvious and extreme example, but of our other “good guys”, Elisa is mute, Zelda is black, and Giles is a closeted gay man, while the clean-cut, outwardly respectable WASP-ish Strickland is the movie’s real “monster”.

For Sally Hawkins, a respected but lower-profile character actress, this represents a chance to primarily carry a movie, and do it without speaking a word of dialogue (apart from a brief fantasy sequence where she breaks into song).  Hawkins is not what would be generally considered attractive, but she has an expressive, animated face (reportedly she studied Charlie Chaplin and other silent movie actors to help express herself with no dialogue) and sells Elisa’s loneliness, vulnerability, and empathy with her expressions and body language (she also has no qualms about getting naked).  Words aren’t really necessary to understanding Elisa’s emotions.  In some ways, Doug Jones has an even harder job, not only equally bereft of dialogue and reliant on body language, but having to do it under three hours of makeup and costuming.  Of course, this isn’t new territory for Jones, a frequent collaborator of Del Toro, who also played Abe Sapien in the first Hellboy—who bore more than a passing resemblance to Amphibian Man—and played the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth.  In the supporting cast, Richard Jenkins mixes a little fumbling humor with a mix of loneliness and sympathy that makes it clear why Giles bonded with Elisa (the role was originally envisioned for Ian McKellen), Michael Stuhlbarg is the conflicted Dr. Hofstetler (for a low-profile character actor, Stuhlbarg is having a good year, appearing in three of 2017’s awards darlings between this, The Post, and Call Me By Your Name) and an underused Octavia Spencer is again typecast as the “sassy black friend”.  Last but not least is Michael Shannon, whose Strickland, beneath a thin veneer of a clean-cut military man, is a lot of ugly traits rolled into one, a racist chauvinistic Bible-thumping misogynist (he’s turned on by the idea of a woman who is literally incapable of speaking), a bully, and a sadist (he enjoys torturing the creature with a cattle prod).  Even in glimpses of his stereotypical all-American suburban home life (where he is cold and distant with his children and has rough, one-sided sex with his wife), he’s a tightly-wound powder keg waiting to go off.  Shannon is no stranger to scenery-chewing (his show-stealing turn as a crooked cop in Premium Rush, for example), but he’s restrained here for the most part, which makes his bottled-up intensity a little scary.  Strickland is the kind of bad guy whom we want to see get some kind of comeuppance.

The Shape of Water isn’t perfect.  Those familiar with Del Toro’s style will recognize they’re in a Del Toro movie right away.  There’s a vaguely but markedly off-kilter vibe to everything, a level of stylization in the sets and dialogue, like a more restrained Tim Burton, and there’s moments when it gets a little excessive—a fantasy sequence of Elisa and the creature doing a choreographed song-and-dance number on a theater stage while she sings “You’ll Never Know”, her only vocal utterance in the movie—and I’m not sure how many audience members might get a little turned off by the idea of a woman having sex with the Creature from the Black Lagoon (fear not; we’re spared any graphic details), but for those who aren’t turned off by Del Toro’s offbeat artsy style or the premise, The Shape of Water holds its own quirky, fairy tale-esque charm as a (very) unconventional love story infused with elements of quirky humor, adventure, and suspense.

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