The Shape of Water is one of the most unusual, and best, movies of 2017, yet you’re very likely to feel you’ve seen it before. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy defies twenty-five word or less description, but no matter what else it is, it’s a movie about movies.
That isn’t a bad thing. When serious literature routinely became metafiction, literary critics applauded. It was inevitable, in any event, as “serious writers” increasingly emerged from the ranks of graduate students in literature. Modern filmmakers have grown up on cinema and have often studied it at the college level from both practical and historical perspectives. The Shape of Water is a metamovie – a film which is as much about what it means to be a movie as it is about the story it tells. Del Toro’s exuberant film geek tendencies announce themselves constantly. Is it an accident that Elisa’s apartment is located above a decaying movie palace where fifties Biblical epics play to near empty houses?
None of that means that The Shape of Water isn’t entertaining. A dandy fifties-style monster movie effectively mashed up with a Beauty and the Beast fantasy romance that’s packed to the gills with other movie references that you’re meant to catch, the movie is also extravagantly, unrepentantly, giddily romantic.
British actress Sally Hawkins explodes from near-anonymity in America with a breath-taking and star-making performance as Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning lady who works the night shift at a high-security research facility in the early sixties. Elisa’s only friends are Zelda, a co-worker (Octavia Spencer) and her gay artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). Her life’s predictable routine is shaken when a new research asset is brought in. The asset is a humanoid amphibian (Doug Jones) which has been captured from the jungles of South America where it was reportedly worshipped as a god. We suspect early that the creature these government scientists have captured is intelligent. He’s also frightened and lonely. Rather than introducing a dangerous monster (although the creature can certainly be dangerous), del Toro presents, quite literally, a fish out of water.
The scientists at the facility think that studying the amphibian will help them solve problems with the nation’s infant space program. Elisa is horrified by its treatment at the hands of man in black Richard Strickland ( Michael Shannon), a sadistic racist sexist who seems to have wandered in from The Shop in a Stephen King novel. Strickland is such a dislikeable villain that he runs the risk of becoming a two-dimensional caricature. He’s even a bit of a sexual freak, telling his wife, during partially clothed missionary position intercourse, that he wants her “in silence” when she complains that he’s bleeding on her from a hand wound he received from the asset. (To be fair, his wife, played with proper Donna Reed/June Cleaver primness by Lauren Lee Smith, will only consent to sex if he’s washed his hands “really well.”) Shannon finds some nuance in Strickland, at least a level of sincere commitment.
And yet the square-jawed Strickland would have been the hero in a fifties monster movie, stepping in to save Elisa from the clutches of an inhuman monster. Del Toro is determined to turn conventions on their heads.
The bond between Elisa and the creature deepens as she starts to communicate with him by teaching him sign language. Subtitles help here, but we are already used to Elisa’s communicating without speech. Part of the magic of Hawkins’ extraordinary performance is that she does it without spoken dialogue. What she does with her face and body language is remarkable, and she turns in one of the finest performances in any movie this year. Whether intentional or not, del Toro, like Michel Hazanavicius in The Artist, celebrates the art of silent movies.
Elisa is already an outsider – perhaps that explains why she’s so easily drawn to the alien-looking creature. It’s certainly easy to have sympathy for him – Strickland regularly tortures him with an industrial-size electric cattle prod. But none of the characters are exactly from Central Casting. In America in the early sixties, people from different races didn’t tend to mix, and Elisa’s only friend at work is an African-American woman. Her only other friend is gay, and that was largely not tolerated. (In one particularly telling scene, a diner manager ejects both black and gay patrons in a matter of minutes.) Bigotry, sexism and intolerance flow beneath the surface of this movie like crap through a sewer, but kindness and decency remain relentlessly possible.
The time period informs the movie in other ways. The sixties were the height of the Cold War, and fear was a way of life for many Americans. Elementary school children had regular air raid drills along with their fire drills, and learned to cower under their desks waiting for the first mushroom clouds to sprout. The Space Race was also getting underway, spreading the Cold War to the cosmos, and full-scale American involvement in Vietnam was on the horizon. Did Russian spies ever hurt a movie? They certainly don’t here.
Del Toro, whose movies are always technically masterful, benefits here from superb, athletic cinematography by Dan Laustsen, and Paul D. Austerberry’s imaginative production design. Between the two, The Shape of Water is presented in deep, lush, swampy colors – mossy greens, earthy browns and deep, bloody reds. The music is also lush but idiosyncratic, often dating back to the big band era which would have seemed dated in the sixties.
Mixing genres from musicals to film noir, The Shape of Water revisits and reinvigorates the enduring allure of the classic monster movies by playing upon the primal emotions of fear, abandonment and danger, but also curiosity, awe and desire. The classic monsters, from Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Mummy, and for our purposes, maybe especially the Creature from the Black Lagoon, all carry off the heroine at some point during the story, and that gets more than a few of them killed. But del Toro is working against expectation, and takes some interesting artistic risks to get there, including an Astaire/Rogers style musical number – the luminous black and white RKO type, not the after dinner mint, pastel color M-G-M ones. (This scene, interestingly, is the only time we hear our heroine’s voice.)
It should be noted, and it’s interesting, since this could have been a Disneyesque, family-friendly fantasy (there are, of all things, echoes of Ron Howard’s Splash), that del Toro is refreshingly candid about the characters’ sensuality, which includes some tastefully directed glimpses of Elisa masturbating in her tub. Apart from presenting the character as a fully developed woman, it begs an interesting question. We only see Elisa achieve sexual gratification in water, which could simply be part and parcel of the water imagery that runs rampant in the movie, or tell us something more about the character.
The Shape of Water benefits from a singularly un-Hollwyood-like generosity of spirit, extending to the supporting characters. Giles and Zelda, characters who could easily have protagonists in their own movies, get more development than usual for the high-priced spread, and the movie is the richer for it. So does Michael Stuhlbarg’s character, a scientist who’s also a spy, and for that matter, Shannon’s Strickland.
Del Toro is always interesting, even when flawed (Pacific Rim comes to mind), and this is his best work since Pan’s Labyrinth. Multi-layered, textured and nuanced, The Shape of Water is also romantic, exuberant and thoroughly entertaining. Not only likely to become the thinking couples’ date movie of choice, but this remarkable movie is likely to be a major contender in the upcoming award season free-for-all. This fish out of water fantasy/romance could very well turn out to be made of pure gold.