Finally, Guillermo Del Toro has delivered a film that reminds us why he has been held in such high regard over the years. It’s been over a decade since Pan’s Labyrinth hit everybody like a ton of bricks, and during the time since he has either been attached to projects that haven’t happened or released several works that fell short of his former critical success. That being said, he’s never been the type of filmmaker to write-off and instead just needed the right story to channel his talents through. His best work is often cited as deeply personal for him, and luckily for him and audiences The Shape of Water joins the ranks of his best.
Del Toro has, on multiple occasions, claimed that monsters have acted as his savior throughout his life. As such, it’s a subject his filmography is filled with and because of that his name has become synonymous with the word, at least for modern cinema. His love for monsters has even had him attached to several reboots featuring the monsters from the classic Universal Studios line. At one point he had even pitched to the Universal Studios what his vision for a modern Creature from the Black Lagoon would look like. Though his pitch was ultimately turned down, he held onto elements from it over the years and has now delivered his own creature film with The Shape of Water. One of those elements comes straight from his childhood for the Universal horror classic, which was a fantasy of wanting to see the Gillman’s love for Julie Adams’ character develop into a romance between the two instead of the one-sided affair it is.
In that scenario, however, where would that leave the original love interest? Which is, of course, the hero of the story or the all-American male archetype. A common theme that Del Toro has retreated to often in his work is in the portrayal of human beings as the real monsters, and in this film Michael Shannon’s character of Strickland steps in to serve that role. At first glance his performance lacks the nuances of Captain Vidal from Pan’s Labyrinth, and he may seem somewhat needlessly evil or a caricature. However, despite the relevance of the cold war setting and the racial politics of the era, the character of Strickland provides the best instance of social commentary for today’s world. He is a man that puts forth the image of the perfect American male citizen. His picture-perfect family and car are straight out of an old advertisement you’d see in a magazine. He is strongly devoted to his country, but only does so in the sense of serving himself. He is a man that has power, but never has enough of it. It’s less about earning his good fortune and instead feeling entitled to it despite the abuse he shells out in the process to those he feels are beneath him. He is a bastard, and Shannon really nails it.
Aside from Shannon, the film is rounded out from good performances from the cast including Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Richard Jenkins. Their characters, however, exist simply to supplement the development of the two-lead protagonist who are the main reason this movie works at all. These are the roles of Eliza played by Sally Hawkins and the Amphibious/Gillman played by Doug Jones. Although the story is dealing with fantastical and horror elements it is ultimately about a romance. Not only do Hawkins and Jones have to make this romance believable, but they also have to make the audience accept that it’s OK that a woman has the hots for a walking fish man. The absolute standout in this case is Hawkins who provides one of the better performances of the year. She really sells the sexually repressed nature of the lonely Eliza and the need for her to find a connection in a world that overlooks and neglects her.
Doug Jones, meanwhile, has been Del Toro’s go-to guy when it comes to the many creatures of his past films. For his role in The Shape of Water he immediately commands a presence when he appears on-screen, and this is not just because of the nature of what his character is. Jones’s skill with physicality and mime bring out the subtle uniqueness of the Gillman even when his character is doing something as mundane as just standing around or walking across a room. Every single movement or non-movement brings life to what could have otherwise been just a man in a suit. These are both performances where much has to be told in non-verbal ways as Eliza and the Gillman are effectively both mute. It’s due to the language expressed by their acting that this is accomplished. Speaking of, I must give props to Hawkins’ use of American Sign Language (ASL) for her character, which is one of the more honest depictions I’ve seen. She not only has the correct techniques, but also is able to express many emotions while doing so. If I didn’t know any better, I would think she has known the language for years at this point. As a former ASL student it was seriously impressive.
Being a director also renowned for his visual aesthetics, The Shape of Water is a $20 million movie that looks multiple times its budget. The artistry involved in the crafting of its production elements only add to the enchantment of its cinematic beauty. The score is elegant and perfectly married to the tone and setting of a fairy tale set in the 1960’s. The blend of practical and digital effects help ground and bring life to this on-screen world. Many of the sets have been meticulously hand-crafted and only augmented with CGI. This results in only one or two occasions where I felt the actors were standing in a green room or interacting with nothing there. This is the same approach taken with Doug Jones’s character as well. He is an actor in a suit which is helped by digitally altering certain visual attributes including his eyes and other movements. Many films would have made this character in a complete digital fashion, and I’m grateful the designers took an old school approach here. It’s also thanks to the use of lighting and other effects like smoke which give the fairy tale vibe that Del Toro visualizes so well. It’s an overused description, but at times the visuals looked straight out of a painting and accolades are deserved for the director and Dan Laustsen as cinematographer.
The Shape of Water isn’t without its issues, most of the problems come straight from the script. In its runtime of just over two hours, there is a lot of ground to cover involving characters and scenarios. This results in many aspects being rushed, particularly in the first and part of the third act. An example of this being Eliza’s infatuation with the Gillman. It seemed that she had just met the guy, and immediately she was ready to dive straight in and start offering her eggs to him. It would have been nice to have a little more foreplay first. It’s as if the movie is in a rush to get to the good stuff, but isn’t able to spend the time to build up Eliza and the Gillman’s bond. Instead, their relationship has to be sold to us without seeing it properly developed which caused a lack of connection on my part.
Despite saying this, there’s not many parts or scenes that I feel needed to be excised for more of this development, so the only sensible resolution would be to lengthen the runtime. Then again, the pace is very steady and the inclusion of more scenes could potentially just drag it down. It’s kind of give and take. There were also some bits that I didn’t feel needed to be explained as they were and instead should have left up to the audience’s imagination. I don’t want to venture into spoiler territory, and since these occur within the meatier parts of the story I won’t mention them.
As it stands, despite these few issues which hold the film back from being Del Toro’s masterpiece, he should be and is deservedly proud of has been accomplished here. We’ve got some truly beautiful filmmaking here by a man and crew putting their full talents and artistic skills on display. It serves as a joyous celebration of cinema and offers a pure form of escapism.
We live in troubled times, and sometimes the best way to cope with the horrors of the world are through the fantasies and dreams of others. Fortunately in this case, we have monsters.