Shape of Water Bold, Inventive, Beautiful

Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Fox Searchlight, 123 minutes, R (nudity, a few swears)

On paper, there's very little about The Shape of Water that works. Its star is an upright amphibian (Doug Jones) and the film's Mexican director, Guillermo del Toro, admits that he's a near copy of the scaly protagonist of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Our female lead, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is—for most Americans—a little known British actress who plays a mute. Improbably for the film's time period, her best friends are Giles, a closeted gay graphic designer (Richard Jenkins) and an African American woman, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), who works the nighttime cleaning shift with Elisa at the Occam* Aerospace Research Center in Baltimore. (Who, other than Barry Levinson and John Waters even makes movies that take place in Baltimore?) The villains are cardboard cutouts, there are no big "stars," and the script is a crazy quilt patching of Creature from the Black Lagoon, Beauty and the Beast, ET, and Japanese sci-fi.

Yet, improbably, it does work—brilliantly. The Shape of Water might not be the best picture of 2017, but it's certainly the most inventive and one of the most daring. Think a more watery magical realism vibe along the lines of Alejandro Iñárritu's Birdman (2014). If you know anything about del Toro, you know that he really likes monsters. He's the director who gave us other creature features such as Cronos (1993), Hellboy (2004), Blade II (2012), and Pacific Rim (2013). And if you've seen his previous masterpiece, Pan's Labyrinth (2006), you know that his ogres serve a greater purpose. Such is the case in The Shape of Water.

The film is a love story straight out of Beauty and the Beast, to which del Toro gives direct homage. Yet it's also a film about disability, loneliness, marginalization, trust, social class, society on the cusp of change, and the Cold War. Did I say the Cold War? Yes. It's the early 1960s and the Russians have the early lead in the Space Race, so expect some spy intrigue. Much of that era seems misguided in retrospect, hence del Toro presents Cold War intrigue in a way that's part Frederick Forsyth** and part Mad Magazine's Spy vs. Spy. The focal point is, of course, "Amphibian Man" (as the film identifies him), a muscular bipedal specimen captured by Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and spirited back to the Occam Center for study in the hope he might be the US answer to Russia's Laika the dog—a sacrificial animal to be launched into space in advance of humans. The Ruskies also want him, or at least they don't wish the Americans to possess him. Del Toro dabbles in tropes from 1950s sci-fi: the military mind vs. the scientific mind, destruction vs. investigation, security vs. morality, and the age-old question of sentience. Let's even toss in Biblical rain as a key plot device—something we've seen in dozens of movies.

Yet it is in these things that del Toro works his greatest magic; he makes improbable things profound. There is, first, terrific acting from Hawkins, Jones, Spencer, and the much underappreciated Jenkins. Splashes of humor keep us off-kilter. Above all, though, is the overall feel of the film and sets that bring to mind the dark hues of films such as Metropolis (1927) and Sin City (2005); that is, Shape of Water is a noir(ish) dystopian live action graphic novel pastiche. There are wonderful visual puns for the keen-eyed, many of which involve textures and hues of green. Elisa and Giles live above a seedy one-screen movie palace, which foreshadows themes of isolation, loneliness, difference, and transformations not yet realized. We know that such theaters—and note how classic movie clips on movie and old-style TV screens parallel the story arc—are on their way out, but what of those caught between the decaying and the new? 

Giles embodies this. Not only does he remain closeted, he also cranks out advertising mockups appropriate for the 1950s Golden Age, images more out of fashion each day. Col. Strickland's home, family, Cadillac, male privilege, disdain for underlings, and yes-sir patriotism are also on the cusp of major challenge. Ditto things such as sexual identity, Jim Crow, and the marginalization of those with physical disabilities. Elisa has mysterious marks on her neck. She can hear, but she cannot speak, all of which add up to freak in those days. It is no accident that del Toro's characters are an intelligent monster, a mute, a homosexual, and a black woman with a blind husband. Nor is it accidental that a loss of fingers infers symbolic emasculation.  

On the surface, The Shape of Water is a cartoon-like caper and monster film. Yet from it comes something stunningly beautiful and transformative, a very different kind of love that dare not speak its name. You might shed tears at the end, or join those who spontaneously applauded (as happened the evening I saw it). The Shape of Water is why we go to the movies: to be taken to heights, depths, and imaginative places we'd not reach on our own. What does it mean to be different? If we break ugly surfaces, gems emerge.

Rob Weir

*I assume that the name Occam is deliberate. William of Occam was a 13th century philosopher best known for "Occam's razor," a principle that says that when confronted with competing theories that point to similar conclusions, the one with the fewest assumptions is likely to be the most sound. In popular thought it's often expressed as the simplest explanation is the best, though that's not quite what Occam inferred. 

**Forsyth penned The Day of the Jackal,  thought by many the classic Cold War spy novel.

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