This review contains potential spoilers!
If I could kick things off rather poetically: The world of film is a vast sea. There are glittering surfaces and broad horizons galore, but also unseen depths full of monsters that rip the viewer away from comfort. Sometimes we find that the films we dive into are much deeper than expected, or shallow enough to break your neck on. Other films defy the logic of surface and depth altogether. Guillermo del Toro’s filmography is built out of such movies, at once profound and delightfully shallow, always twisting and turning away from expectation.
The Shape of Water is the latest offering from the renowned Mexican director, one more monster-filled, heart-felt film for both the general public and the film buff alike. Written by Vanessa Taylor and del Toro (or Paul Zindel if you’ve read up on the controversy surrounding the movie), this is the typical story of woman meets fish.
Set within the uncomfortably clean world of a romanticised early-60s USA, The Shape of Water follows mute janitor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), whose night-in night-out routine of work at the Occam Aerospace Research Facility is shattered upon meeting a rather handsome merman. Finding a kindred spirit in the amphibian humanoid, who is unable to communicate his obviously tender soul except through basic sign language and loud screeching, Elisa befriends and, ultimately, falls for the unnamed creature. As the Cold War heats up, Elisa takes it upon herself to rescue her fishy soul-mate from the clutches of bloodthirsty researchers.
The premise is simple yet bizarre and imaginative enough to warrant attention. Monster sex-appeal is quite the draw for crowds seeking innocent romance, fantastical effects and brave new frontiers all at the same time. “The Aquatic Erotic”, with all its promises of smoothness, floating and dappled light is central to the movie. Almost every scene is as sensuous as the waves under which our two main characters float. The film’s colours are subdued and cool. Even the shapes of the buildings and costumes are bulbous and flowing. The cinematographic poetry of the movie speaks the theme of waves and atomic energy ready to be unleashed. It is, truly, beautiful.
But under the slick, Deco surface of The Shape of Water is very human horror. The movie is surprisingly brutal. Gun shots pack a sonic punch and there is no lack of gore. Del Toro’s well-known penchant for physical effects bring wounds to grizzly, vivid life, making the audience squirm and cry out in their seats.
The paranoid reality of the Cold War also plays out through carefully placed propaganda posters, military showmanship and all manner of subterfuge. It doesn’t exactly feel like bombs are going to start flying at any moment, but there is definitely a tension in the air. For example, Michael Stuhlbarg plays the conflicted double-agent Dr. Hoffstetler. Torn between his desire to keep the monster alive and his duty to the Soviet government, he risks his life in the pursuit of true science.
“I’m not competitive, I don’t want an intricate, beautiful thing destroyed!” – Dr. Hoffstetler
Meanwhile, the spectacularly scary Agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) does all in his power to vivisect the creature and move up the ranks. Under his stone-like exterior is a seething sadism. Shannon was the perfect casting for this role, what with his gobstopper-cracking jaw and piercing eyes. Dr. Hoffstetler and Agent Strickland play opposing forces, one fluid and caring, the other rigid and uncompromising. Both represent something bigger in the grand scheme of the Cold War, and both are grossly masculine.
Above the international politics though, The Shape of Water is a completely character driven story. The thread of doomed romance, unable to survive a bigoted and paranoid culture, that runs throughout the movie is powerful enough to completely overshadow even the origins of the creature. But, in the end, origins don’t really matter. Beyond lip-service to pasts we never see we don’t get much of a glimpse into anyone’s past. All that exists is the present and, maybe, a future which hangs on a knife’s edge.
“I dragged that filthy thing out of the river muck in South America all the way here. And along the way we didn’t get to like each other much.” – Agent Strickland
Within this unstoppable flow of time, however, love breaks free. In one strangely sweet scene, Elisa gleefully fills the apartment bathroom with water from the sink so as to swim with the creature, only to cause havoc in the downstairs cinema. The unspoken, unspeakable love between her and the creature trumps reason and building safety codes. It trumps the Cold War, bigotry, capitalism and communism. In perfectly clear water, we see two “broken” individuals come together and become something unbelievably beautiful, something to inspire artists (such as the sweet neighbour Giles played by the brilliant Richard Jenkins).
The only thing to spoil such a perfect scene is an unnecessary reference to the creature’s genitals. The physicality of the act may be part of del Toro’s grand vision for a living, breathing, real monster, but its crudeness seems out of place. Though, if you consider the other angle, this sort of detail is what make the world of the movie unique. It’s a well-balanced blend of realism and fantasy. That is, until…
… It falls awkwardly straight into the realm of fantasy in the final scenes.
The creature is referred to as having been worshipped as a god in its home country, but it is only well after the film’s halfway point that its truly magical properties are revealed. Its power to heal wounds (and regrow hair) is a needlessly tacked on and clichéd addition to an otherwise believable being. The creature seems to obey its own rules only as needed for the plot to progress. And when the finale comes and all is revealed, we are left unsatisfied by an un-killable monster that breaks the dramatic tension of the pursuit and romance.
The third act of the film is also far too compressed. After an hour and a half of world-building and character driven drama, the final chase and escape feels rushed and without the weight and reverence paid to the earlier scenes.
All in all, though, The Shape of Water will certainly last as one of Guillermo del Toro’s masterpieces, alongside the unforgettable Pan’s Labyrinth. The signature melding of reality and magic (aided, of course, by spectacular, tangible physical effects) elevates del Toro’s movies out from the flood of big blockbuster flicks. It’s going to be a long time before we get another film that makes the world fall for a movie monster.