Guillermo del Toro believes in the good of monsters.
There’s always been a beauty through which del Toro filters the grotesque and macabre. Through his eye, these creatures from the depths and horrors from beyond have an elegance and sense of awe that make them something more than a terror. They are animals or they are spirits and they have pain.
That warmth of spirit comes to the forefront in The Shape of Water, del Toro’s love-letter to Creature from the Black Lagoon and the mythologies and genres he grew up with. Anchored by incredible performance, technical brilliance, and a wealth of head and heart, The Shape of Water is a magical fairytale of a movie about people on the margins of society.
Set in the midst of the Cold War, government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings The Asset (Doug Jones), an amphibious humanoid creature, into a dark government research facility. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman who spends her nights working at the facility alongside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her days sleeping and spending time with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). Elisa finds a strange connection with The Asset, one that goes deeper than anyone could have imagined.
I don’t want to go much further, this movie takes more delightful and interesting turns than anyone might have expected but let me drop one fairly major story note. Not so much a spoiler, but something that will help you understand where it’s coming from.
The lady and the fish guy fuck.
I tell you almost entirely so you can understand what this story is. It’s a lovely fairytale, something beautiful and otherwordly. But it’s a frank story about things like desire and love and what it means to be human (or not).
This is, perhaps more than del Toro has ever been, a film that feels free creatively. It’s a film that, despite maybe being his smallest, feels like his grandest in thematic vision.
You have a story of those on the margins. A woman who cannot speak can only listen to the voices around her. A gay man seeking to find affection, a black woman who no one will listen to, and something beyond human that can’t communicate either. A story of those people shoved to the side and told they aren’t human, given voice and allowed to make their story.
It’s also a story of love and romance, but one without the sanded off edges. This is a film with and about sex. Elisa is a woman who has desires that are communicated frankly from early on in the film. It’s about centering those desires and understanding how someone can interact with that, how desperately we long for affection that understands us.
It’s about that darkness coursing under the American history, the people we shoved into the underclass and the swath of destruction we cut across the land. The people who tried their best to stop it and were killed along the way.
This is a story about so much and it would be easy to get muddled and get lost in all the threads crossing and weaving. Yet del Toro is an absolutely talented enough director to weave into a tale that feels primal and real.
His world is characteristically gorgeous. While one of the least fantastic locations his film has been set in, it’s made with the same level of grimy detail and tangibility that his others have. The Asset is an incredible piece of design, even pulling off of Abe Sapien as it does, it’s still a distinctive and living creature that Doug Jones flawlessly inhabits.
The performance all around is incredible. It’s worth instantly reiterating that Doug Jones is an incredible creature performer and Michael Shannon plays a terrifying monster just as well, inhabiting an all-American man pushed to the edge, something too real to not be scary. Spencer and Jenkins also turn out great performances, Jenkins’ kindly friend a particular highlight.
But this is Sally Hawkins’ movie and she FUCKING nails it. Not a word is spoken (minus a brief and lovely jaunt into a fantasy) but she conveys everything through her smile and her body language and the touch she gives others. She embodies a deep well of life experience and gives character to every motion. It’s a beautiful performance, an absolutely incredible character from an actress who’s made it clear time and time again how good she is.
Honestly, I’ve talked enough, The Shape of Water is a movie that exists in the theater. It’s a beautiful, honest and vital piece of cinema from one of the great living filmmakers. It’s worth letting it wash over you, the world of wonder and the world of monsters.