Only Guillermo del Toro could pull off a love story about the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
When he looks at me, he does not know — how — I am incomplete. He sees me… as I am.
When Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu both won directing Oscars earlier this decade, many hoped Guillermo del Toro would soon be next because of the close relationship and friendly rivalry between Mexico’s “Three Amigos.” The joke, however, was that del Toro, a director known for his works of dark fantasy, would make a bizarre film about Cthulhu’s experiences as a concentration camp prisoner as he tried to meld his particular brand of filmmaking with the Academy’s tastes. Truth, of course, is stranger than fiction.
The Shape of Water is the type of film that only Guillermo del Toro could have made, finding just the type of mix between the odd and the meaningful that people would joke about, and pulling it off so successfully as to undercut every joke. The film stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute janitor who works for a governmental aerospace research lab in 1960s Baltimore. Her muteness stems from an unknown childhood accident that happened before she was picked Moses-like from a basket in a riverbed, its only physical marker being the scars that line the sides of her neck. The emotional scars run much deeper. Elisa is a meek, mousy woman. Her inability to speak is an extension of her reservation to be noticed in the world. Even her surname, Esposito, means ‘orphan.’
Elisa depends on her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted artist, and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) to communicate to the world for her, one in her private life and the other at work. Thus, Elisa exists in the shadows of life, marginally noticed by the people around her aside from Zelda and Giles.
That all changes when the lab takes possession of a new “asset,” a humanoid water creature from South America that was worshipped as a god by the tribes that live along the Amazon river. The Asset (an obvious costume nod to the Creature from the Black Lagoon) has two complimentary breathing systems that allow it to breathe both underwater and from the air, and the lab’s scientists intend to study it to develop technology to win the space race. The lab’s security director Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) and lead scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) debate over the best way to study the Asset. Hoffstetler wants to keep the creature alive for study while Strickland is eager to dissect it, partially in revenge for the Asset having ripped off two of his fingers. But while this battle plays out between the facility’s two powerful men, no one notices the Asset’s effect on the mute janitor who cleans the lab.
Much of del Toro’s work has dealt with the fantastical, and The Shape of Water is no different. The film openly demands that you check your disbelief at the door, and if you can’t stomach the idea of a love story between a human woman and a water monster then this is not a film for you. I can respect that, but for me, fantasy and science fiction have always been Trojan horses for discussing complex ideas in subtle ways. Just as Pan’s Labyrinth was about self-discovery and loss, and Crimson Peak delved into Victorian feminism, del Toro uses allegory again here.
The Shape of Water is a film about outsiders. Elisa and the Asset are obvious, but with those central characters both incapable of speech, most of the film’s dialogue is delivered through Zelda and Giles, a black female janitor and an elderly gay man. The Asset functions as a catalyst for each character’s awakening, with Elisa, Zelda, and Giles seizing agency to confront the barriers that have held them back. Regardless of magic and monsters, that’s powerful storytelling.
Sally Hawkins has never been better than she is here. Even while her character never utters a single word, Hawkins’ performance is a masterclass of physicality and facial control. Del Toro reportedly wrote the part with her in mind, and that’s not hard to believe. Every mannerism, from her walk to how she holds herself to even the emphasis in her sign language, is an expressive language of its own. Del Toro’s work is also noted for its tone, and Hawkins’ acting is a large part of what makes that work in this film. As Elisa and the Asset’s romance blossoms over secret lunches and a soundtrack of diegetic jazz, the film’s plays almost like a fairytale. You can imagine Snow White-esque birds fluttering into view and fixing Elisa’s hair, but del Toro restrains himself. He doesn’t need to push the imagery when every look on Hawkins’ face is one of rapture. She’s the grounding rock in del Toro’s magical realism.
Jenkins and Spencer are also very good in roles that aren’t just supporting, but necessary for the audience. They’re Elisa’s interpretive voice to the audience with their own aforementioned arcs of self-agency to boot. Richard Jenkins’ Giles is especially heartwarming in his acceptance of a relationship that the rest of the world doesn’t understand, an analogy for the support his homosexuality hasn’t yet garnered. Expect to see the film pile up acting nominations come awards season. The odd man out, however, is the ever-snubbed Doug Jones, who has been del Toro’s left arm for over a decade by playing a half dozen wordless, nameless monsters under mountains of prosthetics and makeup. His silent work as the Asset is an equal match to Hawkins’, who at least gets to play to the familiarity of being a human. Even in the era of humanized monsters, recognition for Jones has lagged behind that of his contemporary Andy Serkis, whose own work is frequently under-recognized. And that’s a shame. The Asset’s own transformation from curious puppy and monster to lover and ancient god is a feat that deserves its own praise.
For all of del Toro’s dark fascination with both literal and figurative monsters, The Shape of Water is a remarkably warm film with a sense of care and love that stretches through all of its protagonists. Giles and Zelda are asked to crazy things for Elisa and her passions, but they do them out of a sense of friendship, and the idea that love and beauty are valid no matter what forms they take. Just last week I read a Reddit AMA where a fan winkingly asked del Toro just what shape water actually has. The director didn’t demur for a joke answer in response. Instead he said “[Whatever] shape it needs to take. Like Love. Both are gentle, malleable and yet, they break through every barrier.” That’s just right.