The Shape of Water Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenwriter: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Rated R | 123 Minutes
Release Date: December 15, 2017
A native of Guadalajara, Mexico, Guillermo del Toro was fascinated as a child by fairy tales, ghost stories, and monster movies that ignited his imagination and compelled him to tell his own stories. When he started writing and directing films, those influences laid the foundation for del Toro’s uniquely expressive approach to genre filmmaking – a return to the dark romanticism of Universal horror films like 1931’s Frankenstein and Dracula.
Best known for his three Spanish-language films that upend conventional genre storytelling, Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro weaves vivid phantasmagorias that capture the beauty and the horror of the human experience. His supernatural epics are equally as inventive, from Blade II and the Hellboy series, to Pacific Rim and his gothic romance, Crimson Peak. His new film, The Shape of Water, is the culmination of del Toro’s career thus far – the summation of everything the filmmaker has learned, refined and perfected.
Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the fable takes place during the 1960s, with America on the brink of nuclear war and great cultural and social upheaval. At Occam Aerospace Research Center in Baltimore, the lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works the night shift as a janitor. One day, the facility receives a new “asset” discovered by the cruel Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) in the rivers of South America.
After the mute, mousy Elisa has an encounter with the Asset (Doug Jones), an amphibious humanoid creature – reminiscent of Hellboy‘s Abe Sapien or The Creature from the Black Lagoon‘s iconic Gill-man, she begins sneaking into the enclosure to spend time with him. Feeding him hard-boiled eggs and sharing music through records played on a portable turntable, Elisa develops a strong bond with the organism – two beings, unable to speak, trapped in a life of isolation because the world doesn’t understand them.
Evoking the classic cinema of the ’40s and ’50s, The Shape of Water blends the dark and uneasy aesthetic of film noir with the mystery and awe of an Atomic Age monster movie. It’s a juxtaposition of the real with the fantastic – the ordinary with the extraordinary. Influenced by luminaries like Douglas Sirk, Michael Powell, and Emeric Pressburger, del Toro crafts an other-worldly cinematic spell with The Shape of Water and delivers an unconventional story that works as both a Cold War-era Beauty and the Beast and the filmmaker’s epic love poem to cinema itself.
The script, co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (Divergent, the upcoming Aladdin), was written with specific actors in mind, and it shows. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Sally Hawkins playing Elisa – a ‘Beauty’ that isn’t a Disney princess but a very real woman with flaws and complexities. A luminous on-screen presence, Hawkins’ Elisa walks the same line as del Toro, striding the line between the trivial and the sublime. It’s clear that Hawkins is del Toro’s muse, and his love for her is evident in every frame.
Like every great movie monster, there is something strangely and profoundly relatable about Doug Jones’ creature. A frequent collaborator of del Toro’s, known for his roles in Hocus Pocus, the Hellboy series, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Crimson Peak, the actor and former contortionist has made a career out of bringing to life zombies, aliens, vampires, demons, and beasts of every sort, without showing his face. With the aid of elaborate costumes, intricate prosthetics, and hours of painstaking makeup, the physically expressive Jones outdoes himself here as the sympathetic Amazonian fish-man.
His ‘Beast’ doesn’t have to transform into a handsome prince to be loved, because del Toro’s movie – like the best horror and science-fiction stories – speaks to the idea that love is not transformation but understanding. The film’s two leads cannot speak, which heightens the love story by stripping away the miscommunications that arise when words cannot express how we feel. Love in del Toro’s films is so powerful that it doesn’t require words.
Jones brings such pathos and sensitivity to the role that we not only empathize with him but feel compelled to help him. Like Kong Kong, the Gill-man, and Andy Serkis’ Caesar in the Planet of the Apes films, we hope this magical creature can co-exist with mankind, which fears what it doesn’t understand and resents what it cannot conquer. Like del Toro and Hawkins, Jones’ performance is the culmination of his career; a beautiful and poetic rendering of something beyond our wildest imagination, imbued with heart and humanity.
The true monstrosity of The Shape of Water is Michael Shannon’s unquestioning G-man, Strickland. An abusive and rotten man, Strickland seeks to torture and dissect the creature to harness its abilities to aid the United States government in its cold war with the Soviets. The two-time Oscar nominee is known for intense and psychologically complex roles (Revolutionary Road, Take Shelter, Nocturnal Animals) but Strickland is perhaps his most menacing role yet. Shannon is so good that, while you despise his character, you love watching the actor do what he does best: represent the ever-present ugliness underneath the veneer of civilized society.
With beautiful cinematography by Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak, John Wick: Chapter 2) and the meticulous detailing of Paul D. Austerberry‘s production design, The Shape of Water is, without question, my favorite film of 2017. I love the idea that, in an era of great division, racial prejudice, and gender discrimination, a mute maid, her black co-worker (Octavia Spencer), her gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins), and a concerned scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) are the heroes, while the villains are square-jawed white men in positions of power.
The Shape of Water is a hopeful, exquisite piece of cinema that reminds us that no darkness can ever fully defeat the light. It’s a film about love, as well as the senseless hatred that exists between nations and people due to race, color, ability, and gender. I hope del Toro’s film inspires people to be kinder to one another and replace knee-jerk judgments with empathy and understanding, which is something we’re sorely lacking right now.