In the remaining weeks of 2017, perhaps the most unique movie to stand out from amongst the crowd of bland-looking award-vying pictures is Guillermo Del Toro’s latest genre triumph, The Shape Of Water. Del Toro is a director I have nothing but admiration for. Sure, he has made a surprisingly small amount of films – spread out over the course of 30 years – but when he tackles a genre he knows how to make it work in the most fun and cinematic way possible, and all on his terms. While many would still argue to this day that the absolute best example of this is Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Shape Of Water is without a doubt a worthy successor and proof that Del Toro demonstrates incredible tact as a writer/director by simultaneously appealing to our childlike sense of wonder and adventure with fairy tale elements, and our adult sense of maturity and justice with cleverly interwoven concepts and themes.
The story given to us is a simple one. Purposefully set in 1962 Baltimore, a mute woman named Elisa (a non-mute Sally Hawkins) works as a cleaner in an aerospace lab with her friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and lives in an apartment above a movie theater next to her other close friend, a closeted-gay graphic artist named Giles (Richard Jenkins). Elisa lives a very menial life outside of occasionally sneaking into screenings of Cleopatra (1962), until some G-men led by a delightfully sinister Colonel Richard (read: “Dick” a la Robocop) Strickland (Michael Shannon) bring in a mysterious asset from South America, which turns out to be a Creature Of The Black Lagoon-inspired humanoid fish creature with a great ass (Doug Jones). A curious Elisa sneaks into the lab where the creature is tortured and experimented upon, and she not only discovers that she can communicate with it through sign language but she also has a physical attraction to the wide-eyed hip-swaying amphibian. She then decides to conspire with an undercover Russian spy working in the lab (Michael Stuhlbarg) to break the creature out and help it escape.
If you didn’t expect the Bioshock-looking movie to have a story centered around a romance with a fish man then I am more than happy to rudely awaken you to this realization. If you’re a person who craves “originality” in today’s movies then this is probably as original as it gets. Doug Jones shines as the creature known only as “The Asset,” giving a compelling yet oddly sensual performance through body language alone from within a fantastic-looking practical costume that truly sells the look and feel of the film more than anything. Del Toro does not shy away from revealing his creation almost right away, allowing us to get comfortable around it just as Elisa does and feel sympathy for it as it is isolated and tormented at the hands of government oppressors. Simultaneously, Del Toro makes apparent “The Asset’s” capacity for violence. Jones’ adeptness at body language allows him play off of Hawkins’ mute Elisa well, who, speaking of whom, is able to flawlessly carry the movie without uttering a single word for nearly the entire runtime of the film. She makes you believe in and root for one of the weirdest romances in film in a way you wouldn’t expect, and she is never overshadowed by the rest of the cast and their dialogue. Her performance is without a doubt one of the best of this year, and in terms of the films I have seen so far she can only be rivaled by Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing, Missouri (2017). At a post-screening Q & A I attended, Del Toro revealed that he had been writing the script for this film with Sally Hawkins in mind for the lead since 2013 (while also admitting he told her she was going to fall in love with a fish while he was drunk off tequila at the Golden Globes), and he clearly succeeded in making this role fit her like a glove.
Michael Shannon, as if there was any doubt, is an incredible antagonist. He’s played some great over-the-top villains in the past, but here in a somewhat subtler role he still manages to be such an unlikable bastard that you just can’t help but love hating on how absolutely despicable he is. The genius of this character absolutely lies in Del Toro’s writing because, in practically any other movie, Col. Strickland would have been the hero. Strickland’s character is the most honest example of the post-World War II American Dream everyman. Yes, he is a white button-up nuclear family-man with a cushy government job like you would expect, but he’s also a racist misogynist who sexually harasses others on his team. This was indeed reality at the time, but Del Toro does not attempt to make him a sympathetic byproduct of his position or his time period. He is a fucking villain. Best part is, this is all told to us visually and through thoughtfully written dialogue, and not through the childish overuse of curse words and racial slurs.
The subversion of typical Hollywood convention that makes The Shape Of Water so great is the kind of subversion that could only come from a Mexican immigrant filmmaker. Yes, this film is about a Creature Of The Black Lagoon-ship, but Del Toro said that this movie is about “giving a voice to the voiceless” and that means making its hero a disabled woman and her friends and protectors a black woman, a gay man, and a Russian (classically known to be vilified in American Cold War culture). Inclusiveness allows this film to stand out from amongst other ones like it while speaking volumes about the politics and society of now and then, more so than other films that try oh so hard to pay homage or be about something important. Del Toro has always been a storyteller. Whether it’s a young girl under fascist rule or giant robots beating up interdimensional monsters, he wants his audiences to have a good time and root for his characters. In the case of this film, nothing makes you want to cheer more than likeable characters with agency – not defined by what they are – overcoming an oppressive system; even if “the system” is boiled down to one guy.
So if you thought from the trailers that this was going to be a sort of Cold War spy thriller with the twist of a fish creature being used for experiments, then you have be misled. While the story is certainly interesting and will hold your attention throughout, it’s admittedly a bit of a slow burn, especially in the second half. This is very much a character-driven film and not heavy in action by any means; you pretty much see what little action there is in the trailers. Even the suspense is a bit disingenuous at times because it’s based around silly extemporaneous plot hole movie moments, the kind that make you say to your friend sitting next to you, “That doesn’t make sense…. that wouldn’t happen.” But you know, this movie is still such a delight that these moments are easily forgivable. Del Toro crafts another whimsical fairy tale steeped in the real world drama of its setting, and once again he nails it. So don’t cry because of a lack of original films or an excess of predictable Oscar bait, because The Shape Of Water exists, and it’s out in theaters right now.
The Shape Of Water is exactly the kind of genre fare needed to break the monotony of Oscar season. With characters that are as well written as they are performed, supported by a unique premise and creature design, Del Toro successfully creates a bizarre fairy that’s as smart politically as it is creatively.