“It’s not even human.”
“If we do nothing… neither are we.”
Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is one half of the cleaning department for a government research facility in early 60s Baltimore. Her day starts off like any other: a vivacious bath, hard-boiled eggs, and a visit to her artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). What she and Zelda (a lively Octavia Spencer) discover at work is a game-changer. An amphibian man (Doug Jones) brought up from South America, and referred to as “the asset,” is the latest weapon against the “Russkies” in the Cold War. Elisa is the first person to land eyes on the amphibian inside his container, and a connection is forged through their hands on the glass. With the arrival of the amphibian man, so much pain suddenly has hope for Elisa. Scars on her neck from a young age left her unable to speak, but she has no problems communicating with her friends with sign language. Yet an emptiness lingers within Elisa.
The Shape of Water taps into the heightened melancholy of an era where consumerism is all you need to be made whole. Meanwhile, Giles is left unemployed for trying to capture love, Zelda is left in a loveless marriage, and Elisa seeks that special one who sees her as something more than damaged goods. “When he looks at me, he does not know how I am incomplete. He sees me as I am.” She sees a kindred spirit in the lithe, teal prisoner, and she won’t watch its spirit extinguished for a proxy war. For only being able to convey emotions with her hands and silent expressions, Sally Hawkins is outstanding as the beating heart of the film.
Equally capable is her antagonist, Strickland (Michael Shannon), the new chief of security for the facility. More importantly, the man who keeps the amphibian locked in its cage. Strickland has been wielding power over others for a long time now, and it goes without saying that that power has corrupted him to the core. The only thing that derives more pleasure for him than hurting others, is his box of little green candies. Shannon’s Strickland isn’t quite as evil as Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Captain Vidal, but it’s damn close. With respect to Doug Jones and his work as the amphibian man, Strickland is The Shape of Water‘s actual monster. A man who is set on creating his future, even if it means destroying everything that currently stands.
A clue, if you don’t figure it out five minutes in, The Shape of Water is fantasy made specifically for adults. One that includes romantic subplots, a heist, and a show-stopping musical number straight out of the 30s. Imagine Amelie, but made American by factoring in murder and a Universal horror icon. Guillermo del Toro has evolved from monster practitioner to curator of the beloved, now, he has blended both passions together. Peerless when it comes to creature design, del Toro uses this film to showcase his talents as well as those of Doug Jones. Through sheer willpower, Jones takes the creature and elevates it into something majestic. The creature has a fluidity and grace that couldn’t be accomplished with CGI. Jones serves as his own special effect.
The love of filmmaking also stretches to the work behind the camera. Every still features a thoroughly lived-in feeling for every room, fixture, and thread in the sets constructed by Paul D. Austerberry and costumes by Luis Sequeira. This is a film that loves the past. However, the longing of nostalgia doesn’t make a great deal of sense for the characters. Elisa, Zelda, and Giles are all marginalized by society for their respective identities (mute, Black, gay). Wishing to go back in time to a place they were all happy isn’t possible. Only in their current time could they find each other, find their purpose. For a film to be so humane, yet muddle that message is a little odd. Perhaps it’s because Guillermo del Toro gets so busy spinning plates to appease the conventions of spy pictures and musicals that the central story falls by the wayside. By hopping from genre to genre, story beats don’t land with the heaviness that the melancholy tone at film’s beginning suggests it should.
It’s not difficult to look over those flaws to see the bigger picture, though. Watching the trio of outsiders receive their moment in the sun is its own reward in 2017. Real life rarely grants happy endings, but fairy tales don’t have to play by anyone’s rules other than del Toro.