For Guillermo del Toro, the human condition is never better illustrated than when it’s inspected alongside the fantastical. For all of the well-deserved attention, his love affair with monsters has earned, the 53-year-old director’s appreciation for the human creature has always been just as strong. His tenth film, The Shape of Water, is del Toro’s most naked exploration of the subject, and he approaches it with some of his strongest directorial work to date.
The Shape of Water (trailer) is something like a fantasy-period piece. Set in 1962 Baltimore during the Cold War conflict, civil tension frequently encroaches into scenes and Russian panic is at its height. Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute, is immediately portrayed as a woman isolated from the rest of society: Her speech impediment prevents her from communicating with most of the outside world, and her night job working as a custodian at a high-security facility means she sleeps throughout the day while the general population engage in their active lives. When a new ‘asset’ is carted into the laboratory for research by imposing federal agent Strickland (a brutish and charismatic Michael Shannon), Elisa discovers an unnatural relationship with something – or someone – that truly, for the first time, speaks to her.
Despite it having a great amount of screen time, Guillermo del Toro is relatively restrained in his portrayal of the creature at the heart of The Shape of Water. Rather than indulge in all of its alien anatomy like we might expect in a Pacific Rim or Hellboy, it’s depicted much more matter-of-factly as a simple intelligent animal. We get to understand a few elements of its biology but the creature’s portrayed as something that simply is as it is, and we’re free to extrapolate from that however we wish. This is no accident – del Toro says the creature was specifically designed in such a way that each of the film’s characters could interpret it as entirely different things: Strickland can only see the creature as a beast whose few human-like traits are an insult to God’s image. Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) thinks of the creature as a connection to something out of this world. And Elisa, of course, sees a beautiful soul. Obviously, the larger idea here that these characters are seeing their own projections laid upon the monster, the creature itself is perhaps all or none of these ideas. Del Toro’s precise eye for creature design and Doug Jones’s physical performance both deserve recognition for this, as making all of these interpretations believable is crucial to making the story work. The creature is a wonderful case of filmmaking magic.
The concepts at play behind The Shape of Water are orchestrated well enough, but they alone are not what makes this a Guillermo del Toro film. Christopher Nolan, for example, could take this premise of a group of disparate characters reacting to an unknown life form and deliver a surgically structured conceptual piece. J.J. Abrams has done wonderful things with a similar, albeit much larger and more destructive concept in his Cloverfield universe of films. What turns The Shape of Water into a culmination for del Toro is the way he so closely ties the familiar world with the supernatural. His previous best accomplishment of this, Pan’s Labyrinth, is heralded as an adult’s fairy tale and many of the same overtones exist in The Shape of Water, but where Pan’s was deliberately structured in such a way that most of Ofelia’s encounters with the fantastical took place away the rest of its ‘real’ world, here del Toro allows those fairy tale moments to share the space with the rest of the story. His ability to weave those elements into the more conventional plot, as well as how effortlessly the camera transitions from something as simple as dialogue to something impossibly heightened, elevate The Shape of Water into something altogether different. These magical moments are brief and less frequent earlier on, but as the second act shifts into the third and the film begins to race toward its inevitable climax, they expand into a handful of astounding visual vignettes.
The Shape of Water has already won the Golden Lion at Venice at the time of this review, and we will not be surprised to see more awards follow. Guillermo del Toro has created something beautiful in this latest outing.
GEEK Grade: A
The actual shape of water, you might have guessed, is whatever the shape of its vessel. And of course, the shape of love is the same way.
Images: Bull Productions, Double Dare You, Fox Searchlight