No one does creatures quite like Guillermo del Toro. In films like Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro created monsters deserving of our empathy, while maintaining their otherworldly feeling. Most movie monsters are either cute, or grotesque. Del Toro aims for something more ambitious than that, forcing us to deal with our prejudice along the way. The Shape of Water represents the culmination of del Toro’s work. It is not just a monster movie: it is a provocative alchemy of a fairy tale and Cold War noir, going further than most films in the genre dare, so its sincere emotional beats are well-earned.
It is 1962 in Baltimore, and Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a custodian in a secret government facility. Despite her unusual workplace, her life is small and driven by routine. She goes to work, she hangs out with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), and sometimes she goes to the movies. Many assume Elisa is demure, even mousy, because she is mute. Still, she has passion and yearning that she literally cannot articulate. One day an agent named Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings his latest finding to the facility: it is a swamp monster (Doug Jones), a facsimile replica of the creature from the black lagoon. Strickland is sadistic and incurious, so Elisa instinctively empathizes with the monster, whose eyes suggest intelligence. They start communicating, with her teaching him sign language. Once it becomes clear the monster will face torture and death, Elisa recruits Giles to spring the creature from its watery cell.
The music by Alexandre Desplat is full of unresolved chords and a lilting, bittersweet melody. It sounds familiar and alien, which only adds to the vibe del Toro wants. In spite of this oddly welcoming tone, there is an early scene that feels abrupt, yet necessary, for what is to follow. As part of Elisa’s routine, we see her masturbate in the bathtub. This gives the character physical needs beyond the wistful desires of a fairy tale princess. The screenplay, co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, gives us some idea of what Elisa wants, but a lot of the time her feelings remain obscure. Hawkins gives a lovely performance, using her expressive face to give Elisa dimension and steely determination. By filming from her point of view, we start to share her constant frustrating and pervasive loneliness.
This strategy is important for the film’s overall effect: something happens to Elisa that asks a lot from the audience. It is not just that del Toro wants you to meet him halfway. He wants your empathy for a situation that’s uncomfortable, and borderline obscene. The Shape of Water should not pull it off, but Hawkins is so convincing – and Elisa’s alienation is so complete – that the film’s internal logic and emotional beats are sound. The supporting cast smooths things over simply through how they relate to Elisa: as Giles, Jenkins is mannered, middle-aged gay men who resents the indignity of sexual desire at an advanced age. He is self-obsessed, and borderline exploitative of Elisa’s disability, and yet he is also driven to help her. Octavia Spencer plays Zelda, Elisa’s friend and colleague, and her instinct is quick acceptance. Then there is Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who shares Elisa’s curiosity about the creature, and has a secret of his own.
Del Toro frequently create settings that seemingly stand outside time, and yet the Cold War paranoia is a driving force to the narrative. Stickland represents the status quo – white, male, incurious – while many of the supporting characters have an identity that threatens his worldview. Like his G-man in Boardwalk Empire, Shannon amps his capacity for rage until he is monstrous. It is a thankless performance, but a necessary one, since his inhumanity only deepens the resolve of Elisa and her accomplices. There are intriguing subplots involving Soviet spies, institutional racism, and bad pie, all of which add dimension and ground the film. Gore and sexuality are not typical staples of fairy tales, but they are necessary for a milieu where danger and paranoia are palpable.
The Shape of Water believes in the power of movies, that sitting alone in a theater can be a transformative experience. Del Toro’s film is a gift to daydreamers: his camera shoots in yellow and aquamarine, with a deep focus that invites us to marvel at the meticulous production design. After Elisa rescues the monster, keeping him in the bathtub, there is a sequence where she finally has the gift of her voice. Del Toro pushes in on his heroine, leading to a fantasy sequence that is as delightful as anything you’ll see this year. The scene serves a deeper purpose than The Artist or even La La Land, with Golden Age Hollywood serving a metaphor for something precious that we dare not speak. Del Toro returns Elisa to her mute status, as he must, and yet the glow of her imagination guides through a climax full of suspense, violence, and betrayal. I suspect that many audiences may cringe at this film, or possibly be repulsed by it, but those who accept its weird premise will have their hearts and imaginations plucked.