Guillermo del Toro’s entire career has been built on a profound empathy for the monsters and the outsiders, sometimes metaphorically, quite often literally, and that goes to a logical extreme in The Shape of Water. Imagine Creature from the Black Lagoon played out as a Beauty and the Beast-style romance, now add in a large portion of mermaid, both specific and related, mythology and you’ll conjure something up that approximates the final product. It’s a gorgeous and achingly romantic story about two misfits rebelling against the system with the help from their fellow societal discards.
Richard Jenkins’ Giles narrates the film, positioning the story we’re about to see as a fairy tale about a mute princess that always belonged to the water before returning to it. From there, a certain sense of unreality pervades as we escape into Sally Hawkins’ Elisa numerous flights of imagination and remove from the wider world. This is a film that asks us to believe that Elisa would fall in love with an amphibious humanoid, breakout into an imagined musical number, and reveal a supernatural/folkloric component to her character that was hidden in plain sight all along.
I didn’t just buy into it, I was swept up in the grandiose romance of it all.
Elisa’s mute character is the primary character, but she’s surrounded by a unique blend of supporting players, Jenkins’ gay neighbor, Octavia Spencer’s tough co-worker and Michael Stuhlbarg’s secretive doctor. Each of them start off as those quick blurbs before the story eventually expands upon them in ways so quiet and subtle you barely notice that these fringe characters in the Cold War are embracing their agency, demanding to be seen, and pulling off heroic feats that any other film wouldn’t allow them to have. Spencer’s character is a particularly interesting one as she goes from knowing when to be subservient to higher-powers to straight-up defying the embodiment of toxic masculinity and (literally) calling in the cavalry at the last moment.
Any other film would focus on Michael Shannon’s military man as the hero, specifically on his journey into the South American jungle to kidnap the creature and bring him back for study. Not here, as he’s the film’s symbol of cruel patriarchy that must be toppled. And so he is by a gay man, a black woman, a mute woman, and an aquatic monster, a veritable assembly of wider society’s castoffs reclaiming a small speck of power and agency. The Shape of Water is powerful in this way, and del Toro was smart to place the film’s story at a distance despite the obvious parallels to modern times.
For all of its daring, The Shape of Water is lovingly old-fashioned in its sense of romance. Elisa and the creature develop their connection slowly, and she uses the language of music and dance to begin it. Watch her dancing with a mop in front of his tank in a manner similar to Gene Kelly with a mop in Thousands Cheer or Fred Astaire with a hat rack in Royal Wedding. Later she’s mentally placed them into an MGM musical, Art Deco design, gorgeous gown, and discordant vocals all present and accounted for. Guillermo del Toro allows includes smart callbacks and references to film history throughout his career, and a lover of musicals can spot the references in these sequences.
Even better is the magical performance he gets from Doug Jones as the creature. Buried underneath layers of makeup, Jones still manages to radiate a complete emotional life for his creature. Jones has long been a master of physical acting, merely look at any of the myriad of creatures he’s brought to life for del Toro in the past, but his work in The Shape of Water may be the best of his career. It’s a damn shame the Academy gets so screwy and withholding about nominating motion-capture or monster makeup work because Jones gave one of 2017’s most fully lived in and realized performances.
The Shape of Water is the sight of a master of his craft creating something so personal and tender, yet so profoundly strange and beautiful at the same time. Every Guillermo del Toro film is a cause for celebration and an excuse for me to get excited about the movies again, but there’s something really touching and poignant going on here. This may be my favorite film of 2017.