Guillermo del Toro is a director with distinct vision. Each of his films feels like a thread plucked from the fabric of an existing world; and that tapestry, no matter how obscured by characters or plot, is so lovingly crafted that you can’t help but be impressed by the totality of the experience. Nothing feels like a set and the monsters that he’s spent the majority of his career bringing to life live in a space beyond the uncanny valley. They live and breathe, have history and depth, from Hellboy II’s tragic antagonist Prince Nuada to the inscrutable Fawn of Pan’s Labyrinth. His newest film, The Shape of Water, is perhaps his greatest cinematic achievement. Often described hand in hand with the wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water continues del Toro’s exploration of monsters, be they human or otherwise.
The story follows Elisa, a mute custodian who works at a top secret government facility. The year is 1961 and the government, and much of the nation, is deep in the throes of the Red Scare. Thankfully, Elisa’s regimented (if banal) life is seemingly beyond suspicion. Her days are filled with mopping floors and doing laundry. The only thing that breaks up the comforting mundanity of her existence are her two friends: Zelda, a black woman and fellow custodian, and Giles, her gay artist neighbor. Together, this trio of outcasts persist in a world that does not belong to them: Zelda, a part of a marginalized people; Giles, closeted and aging; and Elisa herself, mute and often ignored. Elisa, however, is a precious sort, curious and cheeky. She’s a romantic at heart and lives for the time she spends with Giles watching old television shows or sitting in her apartment, listening to the sounds of the movie theatre located just beneath her floorboards. So when a mysterious container arrives at her facility escorted by a bellicose government agent, she is immediately intrigued. The mystery of it draws her into being in the right place at the right time and soon she and Zelda are tasked with cleaning the room that houses the “Asset.”
The Asset proves to be what the script calls the Amphibian Man, Guillermo del Toro’s lovingly crafted send-up to the Creature of the Black Lagoon. Formerly a South American deity, he was captured and transported to the US by an FBI agent named Richard Strickland to identify whether or not he can be weaponized by the US government for use in the Cold War. Though initially frightened, Elisa is drawn to the Amphibian Man. Like her, he is without a voice, cast adrift in an uncaring world. She begins to feed him, play music for him, and even communicate with him through sign. Through her careful attention, his vibrancy is revealed to her and soon she finds herself falling for him. Unfortunately, Strickland, who’s lost a finger and more in pride to the creature, is determined to have the Amphibian Man vivisected. As the Amphibian Man’s time grows short, Elisa is a faced with a choice: let this radiant spirit die or break him out of the facility. There really is no choice for her and so she, along with Zelda and Giles, hatch a plan to spring the Amphibian Man from the facility and return him to the sea. Alas, as with all fairytales, things do not go as planned.
The Shape of Water walks the tightrope of tone for the entirety of its runtime. It is a modern fairytale and plays as such, shifting from heartfelt to horrific, humorous to hammy. This may be off-putting for some of the film’s American audience, but for those familiar with non-American cinema, it’s largely par for the course. Though its shifting tone might be jarring, I believe that the heart of its story shines clearly through the film’s beautiful imagery, interesting characters, and some truly stellar performances.
Firstly, the Amphibian Man is a triumph of performance, practical effects, and subtle CGI. Brought to life by Guillermo del Toro stalwart Doug Jones (the Fawn from Pan’s Labyrinth, Abe Sapien from Hellboy, etc.), the Amphibian Man feels like a fully realized character despite his silence and limited signing vocabulary. Jones, a master of movement, imbues within the creature a sense of danger, curiosity, and mystery. He is majestic and tragic all at once, a kingly being brought low by modern technology and uncaring men. Jones’ performance is such that his relationship with Sally Hawkins’ Elisa is truly touching. Hawkins turns in perhaps the best performance of her career. Her Elisa begins the film as a bored and frustrated woman longing for something more and Hawkins captures her self-actualization in such a unique and moving way as the story progresses that it’s impossible not to be swept up in her struggle. Elisa’s growing love for the Amphibian Man turns into determination, to not only help him because of her feelings, but because it is the right thing to do, because she’d do the same for Zelda and for Giles. Hawkins conveys all of this through a full-bodied performance that has no need of words. It is a truly moving performance and easily one of my favorites in recent memory.
The ever-reliable Richard Jenkins also makes an impression as Giles, a once vibrant soul diminished by an unfulfilling life. His struggle as a closeted gay man is heartbreaking and Jenkins makes his regret raw and palpable. His anxiety about revealing his true self has made Giles a man of inaction. It takes Elisa’s plea, from one outcast to another on behalf of another, to break him out of his shell, and when he does, Jenkins’ shines. Octavia Spencer, likewise, puts in commendable work as Zelda, serving as a cautionary voice for Elisa. As a black woman she has to face a whole different set of challenges and Spencer details her initial reticence in a realistic and compelling way.
I would be remiss not to mention Michael Stuhlbarg’s Dr. Robert Hoffstetler. Stuhlbarg, who has become a favorite actor of mine, continues to build his already impressive resume with another great performance here as a Soviet spy masquerading as a US scientist. He is intrigued by the Amphibian Man, moved by its uniqueness and the humanity he sees in it. Strickland and his superiors’ ambivalence to the Amphibian Man’s pain and singularity horrify him. This is a near-mythic creature that they are willing to extinguish for the off-chance it might provide an advantage in a war of egos. Stuhlbarg, as always, manifests a character with a rich interior life. In Hoffstetler you see but a hint of a person whose story, I imagine, could fill an entire film.
Lastly, we come to Richard Strickland as played by Michael Shannon. I’ve read and heard multiple reviews that have criticized Strickland as a simplistic caricature of an antagonist. Though the writing is admittedly broad, I have to admire the villain that Guillermo del Toro and writer Vanessa Taylor have crafted. As with the aforementioned Prince Nuada or Crimson Peak’s Lucille Sharpe, Guillermo del Toro has a fascination with villainy. To him it seems that villainy is almost like an affliction; a character flaw rent open until the wound fills the whole person’s being. Prince Nuada and Lucille Sharpe were driven to abhorrent violence by love. Blade II’s Nomak by betrayal. However, there are two del Toro villains that stand apart: Richard Strickland and Captain Vidal from Pan’s Labyrinth. Both are men apparently dedicated to their country, yet belligerent and unsatisfied with their lives. Strickland, for all his accomplishments, reeks of emptiness. He has a wife and children, a white-picket fence home, and a new car, and yet never do we see him smile. His only solace is found in torturing the Amphibian Man and in exercising his power over others. Jingoistic and racist, his simplistic, binary worldview makes him a character to both despise and pity. As with his superiors, one gets the sense that the nature of the enemy about which he pontificates is largely dubious, a threat conjured to justify his inadequacy-fueled rage and hateful actions. I have great respect for Guillermo del Toro and his continued choices to take characters that may have, in another time, been the heroes of the films in which they feature and instead show them for what they are: small, weak men terrified of change. Michael Shannon perfectly embodies Strickland, showing his confusion and annoyance in every scene and if his wrath comes off as cartoonish, I believe that was a distinct choice and it definitely worked for me.
Beyond the Amphibian Man, characters and performances, The Shape of Water is an utterly beautiful film. Alexandre Desplat’s score is whimsical and haunting; the cinematography by Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak, John Wick: Chapter 2) is sublime; and the set/art design and costuming is stunning. As with every Guillermo del Toro film, you’re offered a whole world that lives and breathes beyond the time that you spend in it. You get only a glimpse, but that glimpse is simply enchanting.
A modern fairytale, both monstrous and moving.