Guillermo Del Toro is a fabulist of a very unique sort. His films walk a narrow edge between fantasy and reality, horror shows and tales of wonder. He makes creature movies of all kinds–giant monsters fighting robots, hidden realms of magical creatures, vampire stories, ghost stories, Hellboy–but the worlds that Del Toro’s films exist in are always, notably, our own. His films are fantasy, but the fantasy of Del Toro is always punching through the screen, pushing against our own places.
He forces an interaction between human and not-human, between the fantasy we’ve come to enjoy and the reality we need to escape. In doing so, Del Toro requires audiences to investigate what it means to be human and, even more importantly, not-human. This is the endeavor of The Shape of Water, a film that wonders aloud what it means to be a part of, and apart from, the species you call your own.
The Shape of Water is a love story stuck in a cold war story, wrapped up in a monster movie. The film centers on Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works on the cleaning crew at a US Government facility. Elisa spends her days with Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her co-worker and friend, and her nights with Giles (Richard Jenkins), a painter who used work in advertising before he was replaced by photographs.
The three of them are lonely individuals. Elisa, separated by her muteness; Zelda, locked in a bad marriage; Giles, aging, gay and losing sight of his place in the world. They find community together, but cannot heal their inner lonely hearts with each other. Which is not to say they are unhappy. They all laugh, and live, and find joy. But loneliness remains for each.
At least until a new asset is delivered to the facility where Elisa and Zelda work. A sea creature, humanoid but not human, arrives, and with him comes Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a career military man now working on a very special project. Strickland and the sea creature (credited as Amphibian Man, and played with by Del Toro regular Doug Jones) are also lonely and isolated. Strickland has it all–a wife, kids, a new Cadillac, but can’t feel it, and the the creature, well, he is completely alone: captured, tortured, beaten, and eventually will be killed for science.
What for me makes The Shape of Water a remarkable love story–and it is truly a remarkable film–is that the relationships in the film exist only for themselves. The Shape of Water is not an allegory, or metaphor; the Amphibian Man is not a symbol pointing away from himself, but a man, who is amphibian, and lonely, and scared, and who falls in love with a human woman.
Other filmmakers who work in fables and fantasy too often turn heavy-handed in their metaphorical messaging. But The Shape of Water refuses. Del Toro lets his story live for its own purpose, lets his characters unfold because they are worth it. This is true for all participants in this story, from Zelda and Giles to the Russian spies and the villainous Strickland.
But the movie’s real interest is in Elisa, and her separation via silence from even her most beloved friends. Del Toro wants to know, like we do, what would happen if a silent woman fell for a silent mythical creature. There’s curiosity on the part of the filmmaker to match that of the audience, and there’s wonder at what warmth these two people (he is a person, really) find together.
The Shape of Water, for as weird as it is, and as dark as it gets, is a warm movie, a romance of a very human kind, even if one half is the Creature from the Black Lagoon (they did find him in South America…). Does it matter, when it comes to love? Watching Del Toro bring his ornate fabulism and imaginative world-crossing impulses to bear on a romance is particularly rewarding. One moment Army Men are talking about vivisecting a creature, and in the next moment, a woman is laughing and teaching him sign language. Perception of the unknown is difficult, and the difficulty that the characters have understanding the creature is echoed by the audiences uncertainty about where exactly this relationship is going.
The Shape of Water is a soft movie with hard, violent edges that are never far from mind. But those hard edges are part of the human experience. And they make the satisfaction of finding someone to fulfill your needs all the better. In sequence after sequence, in small and touching ways, Del Toro evokes that satisfaction. Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones are able to connect emotionally and physically in ways that are as moving as they are surprising–truly a cinematic accomplishment given the physical differences.
In one such sequence, Del Toro trains his camera on a single drop of water in a rainstorm, dancing across a window. It moves hither and thither, just a drop, traveling through time, anonymous and random. But then something happens. Another drop comes. The two drops move together, at the same pace, in the same direction. They dance around each other, coordinating their swishing as a pair. And finally, the two drops join, forming one, slightly larger drop of water in a million drops of rain. It may not be much, to find someone to connect to, if only briefly amidst a storm. But what else is the water, but a bunch of drops that have found each other?
–Christopher Zumski Finke