Review: 'The Shape of Water'

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Life Aquatic

2017 / Canada, USA / 123 min. / Directed by Guillermo del Toro / Opened in select cities on Dec. 8, 2017; opens locally on Dec. 15, 2017

Andrew Wyatt

If Guillermo del Toro’s monster vs. battle-bot indulgence Pacific Rim (2013) is the film that an eight-year-old version of the director might have wanted to see, then del Toro’s latest effort, The Shape of Water, is the sort of feature that might have inflamed the imagination of his 14-year-old self. The filmmaker’s new picture has it everything a geeky adolescent cinephile with a Frankenstein fixation could want: a freakish yet misunderstood monster; a mad science laboratory; Cold War espionage; graphic nudity and sex scenes; striking gore; macabre humor; and a giddy, self-reflexive awe for the magic of the movies. Underneath these evocative genre elements, however, The Shape of Water is a swooning, star-crossed romance at heart, presented with nary a trace of ironic waggle. 

Initially, this might seem surprising. The closest that del Toro has ever come to a love story in his films is the fraught relationship between a demon and a pyrokineticist in Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). Nonetheless, the director’s work has repeatedly demonstrated—up to and especially including Crimson Peak (2015), his opulent homage to Walpole, Poe, and the Brontës—that he has the black bile of the gothic pumping in his veins. And if one scratches the surface of the gothic, one often uncovers a glint of wistful romance. Nowhere in his filmography is that more apparent than in The Shape of Water, a dark fairy tale about the irresistible, purifying power of True Love. In this instance, it just happens to be the love between a woman and a fish-man.

The film’s unlikely heroine is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a night shift janitor at the (fictional) Occam Aerospace Research Center in early 1960s Baltimore. Elisa, who is mute, is a creature of habit. Each evening she irons her clothes, shines her shoes, and makes hard-boiled eggs for her brown bag lunch. As the water roils, she masturbates in her bathtub for the exact duration of the egg timer. She’s tidy and polite, but her expressive brown eyes reveal a devil-may-care mischievousness. Her preference for sleeping on a plush divan rather than a bed hints at a romantic side. Her best friends are Giles (Richard Jenkins), an acerbic, closeted commercial illustrator who lives across the hall, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her affable co-worker on the research center's cleaning crew. The scars on Elisa’s throat attest to a secret or two, but her dim longing is all too apparent when her gaze drifts to some unseen, faraway vista.

Elisa’s routine is disrupted by the appearance of the humorless Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who arrives at the Occam Center with a curious prisoner, brought stateside in chains from the South American river where he was found. This “Asset” (Doug Jones) is an amphibious humanoid straight from the Black Lagoon, his green-brown scales strikingly adorned with stripes of azure blue. Strickland’s superiors believe that an understanding of the creature’s mysterious physiology could be valuable to the U.S. space program. Toting an electric cattle prod, the cruel Strickland would prefer to have the aggressive, razor-clawed monster dissected, but researcher Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) pleads for more time to study the Asset while it he still alive. In truth, the scientist is a Soviet spy, but his motives are complex, and Hoffstetler soon grows to question the judgment of his Kremlin masters.

Into this beastly drama wanders a beauty in the form of Elisa. Stealing intrigued glances of the Asset while he is sealed within massive metal and glass tank, she later sneaks into the laboratory to find him manacled in an inky pool covered in green nutrient scum. She is quickly spellbound by the creature’s restiveness, sensitivity, and alien magnetism, to which she seems uniquely attuned. Elisa gains his trust with gifts of hard-boiled eggs, and eventually she spends several illicit lunch hours with him, playing records on a portable turntable and teaching him rudimentary American Sign Language.

These languid passages are where The Shape of Water is at its most self-assured and defiantly strange, impressing upon the viewer the perplexing depths of Elisa’s infatuation with the Asset, whose piscine anatomy is not remotely erotic in any conventional sense. Still, with a tilt of the head, one can discern what Elisa sees in him. For a mute woman, accustomed to men who feel obliged to fill the air with the sound of their own chatter, the Asset’s inability to articulate human languages seems like a substantial plus. He’s attentive but not clingy, and devoted but not tiresome, with just enough untamed fierceness to get a girl’s fish oil flowing, so to speak. As for the fins, spines, and whatnot, del Toro’s film accepts Emily Dickinson’s observation with an amused shrug: The heart wants what it wants—or else it does not care.

Once Elisa overhears Strickland’s plan to euthanize the Asset, however, the film's plot shifts from this woozy secret romance to a suitably paranoiac Cold War heist. Elisa devises a perilous scheme to smuggle the Asset out the Occam Center, enlisting the aid of the reluctant Giles by appealing to his compassion and romanticism. Zelda eventually tumbles to the plan after observing her co-worker’s suspicious behavior, but she too is won over by the righteousness of this bizarre prison break. Later still, the film changes gears again into a slower, more despondent ticking-clock scenario. Elisa counts the rainy days until an nearby egress to the Patapsco River and Chesakpake Bay is open, while Strickland searches for the escaped monster with a violent remorselessness that steadily slides into deranged obsession. The Colonel’s state of mind is not improved by the distressing fact that two of his fingers—neatly amputated by a swipe of the Asset’s talons and then uncertainly reattached—are gradually growing black with gangrene.

As one might expect with a del Toro picture, The Shape of Water is bolstered by a characteristically deep bench of accomplished artists and craftspeople working at the top of their game. Notable among these are composer Alexandre Desplat, whose score gracefully juggles the film’s numerous tonal changes. However, the dominant mood of the music is unsurprisingly a romantic one. The prevalence of flutes, harp, glockenspiel, and glass harmonica lend the score a distinct undersea character, while Desplat employs accordion and whistling to add an unexpected touch of Parisian whimsy.

The clear standouts among the crew’s contributions, however, are the one-two punch of Dan Laustsen’s cinematography and Paul D. Austerberry’s production design, which conjure a vision of a greenish, rain-slicked Baltimore that never was. As in Hellboy, the look of The Shape of Water is a rich amalgam of urban hyper-realism, vibrant nostalgia, institutional Brutalism, and quasi-steampunk fantasy, suggesting an unlikely marriage of Edward Hopper and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen artist Kevin O’Neill. Meanwhile, the conspicuous Kennedy-era analog technology of Shape’s government lab not only connects the story to the kitschy mid-century B pictures that del Toro reveres, but also paradoxically lends the film an air of mythic timelessness. From the vantage point of 2017, the mammoth computers of the Occam Center might as well be contraptions in the Expressionist robotics lab of Metropolis’ Rotwang.

An affectionate awareness of cinematic history has always been a vital part of del Toro’s filmography, but previously it was expressed primarily through allusions: Inferno (1980) in Cronos (1993); The Searchers (1956) in The Devil’s Backbone (2001); andThe Innocents (1961) in Crimson Peak, to name a few. With The Shape of Water, the director allows a genuine, gooey adoration for cinema’s transportive power to cut through the film’s darkness, mirroring the warmth of the story’s unconventional romance.

This is most conspicuous in the film’s central conceit, which is quite explicitly a rejiggering of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) as an erotic fable. However, one can also discern it in the way that characters savor real-world movies. At one point, Elisa and Giles watch as Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson tap-dance along a staircase in The Little Colonel (1935), with Giles marveling, “That’s so hard!” The subtext to this awestruck comment is the fact that Temple and Robinson’s performance was the first on-screen interracial dance number, a detail that resonates ironically with Giles’ privileged distaste for all the “ugly business” on the news, i.e., civil rights protests and police brutality.

Elisa and Giles also happen to live above a movie theater, where the biblical romance The Story of Ruth (1960) and the musical comedy Mardi Gras (1958) are playing—an unlikely and out-of-date double bill that Elisa nonetheless enjoys. Crucially, the theater allows for what is The Shape of Water’s most indelible image among many worthy contenders: The Asset, having slipped the confines of Elisa’s bathtub, stands staring in amazement as The Story of Ruth plays to an empty house. In this moment, Del Toro captures not only the esctatic reverie of a cinematic virgin’s "first time", but also a striking metatextual uncanniness. It as though Black Lagoon’s Gill-Man had stumbled upon the silver screen that gave birth to him, and all he can do is gape in humbled wonder.

Broadly speaking, there’s little in The Shape of Water that hasn’t been done before. The genre components work in part because of their familiarity, and the story ultimately proffers a stock "Man Is the Real Monster" moral. No filmmaker quite does this theme like del Toro, however, and the pleasures of this feature are those of seeing something recognizable executed with luscious style, fulsome sincerity, and a half-twist of gleefully perverse weirdness. Most conspicuously, that perversity is evident in the fact that, yes, the monster unambiguously screws the girl—or, more accurately, the girl screws the monster. The Shape of Water’s intoxicating aura is attributable to the earnestness that del Toro brings to its Paleolithic-meets-Camelot love affair, as well as the fierce profundity of feeling that Hawkins conveys. It’s quite a trick: Elisa’s eyes sparkle with such unvarnished desire and adoration at the sight of the Asset’s lanky, scaled body, one never questions the genuineness of what she feels, no matter how incomprehensible it might seem.

The fairy tale lineage of The Shape of Water is evident in its characters, who often seem more akin to archetypes than fully realized people. Naturally, as an older ‘confirmed bachelor’ in the 1960s, Giles is erudite, neurotic, and lily-livered. Naturally, as a working class black woman, Zelda is sassy, meddling, and perpetually fed up with these damn foolish white people. (Lamentably, Spencer is essentially portraying another minor variation on the Octavia Spencer Character; it’s long past time for casting directors to give her an opportunity to play against type.)

Strickland, meanwhile, is a repellant brute through and through, a clean-cut caricature of aggressive, mid-century American masculinity. He feverishly screws his obligingly horny Stepford wife (Lauren Lee Smith)—in the missionary position, naturally—without a whiff of amorousness. At one point, he is seen with his nose in Norman Vincent Peale’s crypto-puritanical self-help book The Power of Positive Thinking. Feeling that he deserves a reward for his professional accomplishments, he buys himself a Cadillac, but is wary of the dealer’s suggestion of a teal paint job rather than button-down black. It’s no coincidence that the film’s heroic troika—a mute Latina, a gay man, and a black woman—all represent demographics have felt the end of the proverbial cattle prod wielded by Strickland and other men of his ilk.

The main ensemble might be a tad cartoonish, but this being a del Toro film, these characters are regarded with a generosity that reveals the director’s sincere affection for their humanity. Despite the clear focus on Elisa, the film (mostly) makes time to flesh out the lives of its supporting cast, and it’s an immense credit to del Toro’s direction and his script—co-written with Vanessa Taylor—that these subplots never feel extraneous or momentum-busting.

The film thus observers Giles’ sublimated anger over his homophobic dismissal from an advertising firm, and his aching crush on a slab of All-American beefcake behind the counter at a local diner. Likewise, non-trivial screen time is given to Hoffstetler’s emergent empathy for the Asset, and his creeping terror at the possibly murderous intentions of his Soviet handlers. Even the fascist Strickland is afforded a measure of consideration. Shannon and the director might portray him as unremittingly vile, but in allowing glimpses of the Colonel’s travails under the boot of his superiors’ (and society’s) expectations, they guide the viewer to an understanding of his villainy without requiring outright sympathy. Only Spencer’s Zelda receives comparatively short shrift; the third act glimpses of life with her churlish, craven husband (Bewster Fuller) hint at a subplot del Toro left unfortunately undernourished.

Like the director’s Grimm nightmare Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), this film is a densely layered fairy tale, but The Shape of Water differs from that earlier feature in small but fundamental ways. Pan’s Labyrinth is a film for adults, but it is firmly embedded in the sorcery of childhood, illustrating the bittersweet triumph of innocence and selfless virtue over the evils of authoritarianism. Del Toro’s latest film, meanwhile, is primarily concerned with grown-up feelings and situations: lust and love, of course, but also failure, regret, rage, despair, and an explicitly adult strain of loneliness. (In a strange sense, this is del Toro’s mythical riff on Todd Haynes’ quietly subversive lesbian romance, Carol [2015].)

None of this is remotely original, thematically speaking, but what del Toro achieves with The Shape of Water—as he does in all his best features—is a crystallization of timeless themes with exhilarating emotional frankness, spacious humanism, and extravagent style. In contrast with Pacific Rim, where the visceral toybox pleasures never compensated for the film’s shallowness and frequently irritating triteness, Water finds the director back in his enchanted groove. He elegantly assembles a genre-spanning array of tropes to serve as the bedrock for a profoundly heartfelt story, which in turn bestows those familiar elements with fresh dramatic resonance. This heady feedback loop of the old and the new is what distinguishes del Toro’s lush brand of cinematic magic from virtually every other director working in the horror, fantasy, and science fiction genres.

Rating: A-