The Shape of Water is a creature feature musical, a romance of unlikely lovers, and a grotesque fairy tale that only Guillermo del Toro could pull off.
If I told you about Guillermo del Toro’s latest movie, what would I say? If I told you about it, would I explain how it embodies his unique vision, obsessed with odd creatures and historical time periods? I wonder. What type of homages and stylistic nods would this film contain? Would I explain how it continues his love for the strange, but in a more direct way than we’ve seen before? Would it have humor and terror, love and hate? Would it contain the artistry we’ve come to expect from a filmmaker with such unique vision and attention to detail?
The answers to these questions are all the same; yes. If you’ve seen a Guillermo movie in the past, you know what you are getting into. His appreciation of the odd and curious have taken him to some weird places before. The Shape of Water is more of the same - i.e. bizarre yet beautiful. Plot-wise it takes pieces from monster movies of the past - there’s a fascination and romanticism associated with 50’s/60’s monster films in particular. Del Toro uses those films as his stylistic foundation, and then builds on a love story that displays his own love for creepy creatures as much as the characters in this film.
The reason for the questions above is that Guillermo starts his film with a narrative of questions. He invites the audience into his world to explore. The strangeness he delivers is intriguing but also off-putting, sometimes shocking. He wants to make us uncomfortable in order to force a response. Like those monster movies of yore, there is a creature among man. This creature looks different, and because of how it looks, mankind isn’t sure how we should treat it. Some people treat it like an animal. They want to take it apart to see how it works. Others want to exploit it for their own benefit. They see an opportunity to gain an advantage over their adversaries. Still, others are fascinated by it - fascinated to the point of love. Mr. del Toro, of course, is part of the later category.
Del Toro’s purpose is to put his audience in a position where we question these motives. We ask ourselves what would we have done in a similar situation? What does equality mean to us and how far are we willing to go to accept someone who is very different from us? Set in the 1960’s amongst a backdrop of racial inequality and the paranoia of the Cold War, the world around this story is full of misunderstanding and hate. It’s a world very much like today, split and divided by petty differences. Into this chaos del Toro gives us Elisa, a woman who isn’t afraid of the creature. She can see a beauty everyone else overlooks due of the fact that the creature is looks different.
In this way, The Shape of Water is nothing new. The idea of a woman falling in love with a seemingly grotesque monster is straight out of Beauty and the Beast. The monster becoming infatuated with a pretty woman is taken from nearly any 50’s creature feature. The use of 1960’s inequalities and paranoia as an analogy of today’s social and political climate has been done before. In all these ways, the story and the setting are familiar. Because of this familiarity, these plot elements lack the bite that the inclusion of those elements was meant to have. That means this isn’t the most creative or effective del Toro film, which is a bit of a dissapointment. However, although del Toro has told some compelling stories in the past, his films have always been more about the presentation anyway. And in that regard, The Shape of Water doesn’t disappoint.
The Shape of Water is a very dark film. It is obsessed with shadows and teal, like a 50’s shock horror piece that could only be made today. The lighting and cinematography combine to create something that looks like it was taken straight out of Bioshock, or else a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. It takes its title seriously too, water plays a special role. There are glasses of drinking water, murky tanks, and pouring rain. The wet stuff is as much a visual detail as it is meant to be symbolism. Inside the government facility where Elisa encounters the creature, the sets are full of drains and pipes - attempts to control water in the same way that they attempt to control people and their emotions. Outside there is more freedom, and water as rain is used to show emotion and build tension. It is a more natural setting where the characters are allowed to exist naturally, as they are meant to be.
Against this darkness, del Toro contrasts bright lights and merry memories. The entire film, in fact, plays almost like a musical, complete with a short imaginative dancing number towards the end. But how do you make a musical when you main character is mute? Del Toro uses musical keys and short clips of classic dance routines on passing televisions. The editing is crisp and synchronized, almost as if everything visually in the film is being choreographed like a big song and dance number. The tone is also lighter than you might think. There is a fair amount of comedy, and whimsy. It borrows a sense of magical realism from classic cinema, which makes the darker, more sinister moments strikingly beautiful as well as impactful.
The actors deserve part of the credit for pulling this off. Sally Hawkins is simply fantastic in the role of the mute Elisa. Like a silent film star, she is able to clearly communicate her emotions through her eyes and body language. Her performance gives the film a unique spin, and she brings an energy that keeps the production moving even in its slower moments. Opposite Hawkins is Michael Shannon in the role of a government agent tasked with securing the creature. Shannon’s intensity helps to create a formidable adversary, who turns out to be scarier than the monster itself. Doug Jones, a del Toro film regular, plays the creature with a convicing amount of curiosity and fear. The supporting cast is also very good. While Octavia Spencer plays a similar role to what we’ve seen her play before, her attitude is important to the film’s tone. Richard Jenkins plays Elisa’s friend and neighbor, and is a calming, intellectual lense often playing off of the film’s shock and emotion. Finally, there is Michael Stuhlbarg who’s conflicted character really helps to drive home the some of the film’s messages.
However, del Toro’s ability to extract an emotional response from his audience is somewhat limited by some decisions in the script. Del Toro makes several attempts to remind the audience of the difficult times in which the film is set in. There’s a brief sequence that mentions homosexuality, another that touches on racial inequality, and other hints at some of the character’s dark pasts. Yet del Toro never chooses to expand upon any of these. They are brought up and then promptly forgotten later on. There are enough hints to understand what is being insinuated, but for a movie that goes out of its way to explain details non essential to the plot, this decision left me scratching my head. It makes the film feel very incomplete and simplified. I felt that there could have been so much more that the filmmakers could have said to create a more powerful and complete film, yet that opportunity was wasted by a fascination with the weird.
And so, The Shape of Water suffers many of the same problems that del Toro’s last few films have also suffered. There is no question that the man is a creative genius. He has given us fantastic worlds, colorful characters, and spellbinding visuals. Even his stories tend to be energetic, different, and unique. However, I’m not always sure who del Toro is making his films for; himself, or the audience. The Shape of Water is clearly a microcosm of del Toro’s own love of monsters and creepy things. It becomes so focused on that aspect that it largely tosses aside some of the more compelling and indeed meaningful aspects that it digs up along the way. This results in a film that feels somewhat hollow and one-dimensional. Granted, it is brought forth in an incredibly surreal and interesting way that only del Toro could deliver, which is what ultimately makes it worth watching.