The Shape of Water (2017)
Dir. Guillermo del Toro; Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones
[4 out of 4 stars]
Directed by Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water (2017) tells the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works as a custodian in a government laboratory. She spends the days there with her co-worker and friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and when she’s not at work, she spends most of her time with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an older man who works at his painting in an apartment populated mostly by canvases and cats. Del Toro introduces us to Elisa’s world with a montage that revels in the monotony of her days and routines, from waking up, to punching in, to going to bed. Yet this all changes when military man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) shows up with a creature (Doug Jones) from the Amazon that sits somewhere at the cross between human and amphibian.
On its own, this would no doubt make quite a compelling set up for a film, but del Toro has more than simple romance in mind, opting for a deeper character study within these confines. Elisa is mute, Giles is a gay man, and Zelda is a black woman, and each of them is looked down upon by the world in which they live. This aligns them, in turn, with the amphibian man, who has been brought to be studied and experimented on by Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his team of scientists under Strickland’s supervision. Elisa is enamored with this amphibious creature, and as both begin to fall for the other, Elisa and her friends decide that enough is enough and that they must break this fish-man out of his prison. Standing in their way is Strickland, a candy-chewing egomaniac who wants nothing more than to pick the creature apart piece by piece. He is the personification of all that is intolerant and violent, belittling Elisa for her disability and Zelda for her race. In a movie where one would expect the amphibious creature to be the monster, it is Strickland that emerges as the antagonist, and it is his vision of a world, where anything different must be destroyed, which Elisa and her friends must overcome.
Del Toro has long been known as a master stylist, bending the rules of nature to suit his vision. Whether it is the creatures he brought to life Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Hellboy (2004), or the breathtaking and disturbing architecture of Crimson Peak (2015), there is a look to all of his movies that distinguishes them: the colors are a bit brighter, everything appears a tad over-saturated, and all together it looks like a version of our lives put through a kaleidoscope. What that adds to The Shape of Water, first and foremost, is that it is hard to place exactly when the film is set until the Cold War aspects of Communist paranoia at the lab are integrated when Strickland becomes anxious about Russian infiltration. It is obviously period, Elisa’s piece sprinkled with 1950’s-style cars and store fronts, but it works to the film’s advantage that there is nothing in its visuals that completely nail down when this fairy tale takes place. Even when Elisa’s calendar becomes a key plot point, the calendar gives the day, but not the year. This detail provides each setting with its own sense of character.
The separate sets present a carefully cultivated sense of place. Elisa’s apartment has impossibly curved windows, faux-victorian furniture, and limited light, giving it a warm but lonely ethos. Comparatively, the lab where she works is enormous, constructed with industrial steel and concrete and nondescript tiling that give it no personality except dull and inhuman. The only spot in the building with character is the room with the pool in which our amphibian friend is housed. It is dark and concrete like the lab, but the blue of the water and the light which plays off it create a lighting scheme that often feels reminiscent of Elisa’s apartment. The colors are different, and it is a dramatically larger space, but in the moments when Elisa sits with her love we are treated to a sense of life amongst the horror of Strickland’s beatings and the threat of experiments that happen there. It is a transitory space, and the muddling of the visuals from the rest of the lab and Elisa’s apartment solidifies it as a place conflict, which results in the plan to break the creature out of his prison. This emotiveness of setting plays out throughout the film. The diner Giles frequents is neon and brightly lit until he discovers the homophobia of the waiter, and then a dimming of the lights alters the presentation of the colors, making them drab and fake-looking. Del Toro employs a schema of colors and lighting to convey information about characters and narratives through the physical spaces they populate, and it is part of what makes his films such an engrossing experience.
Alexandre Desplat, in conjunction with del Toro’s engrossing visual world, has crafted a breathtaking sonic world. He has long been a composer with impulses toward lush and emotive scores (if you’re in doubt, listen to his recent work in Philomena (2013) and tell me you don’t feel the music), and this film is no different. His theme for The Shape of Water has a rolling quality to it that perfectly captures the feeling of water through the layers of its composition. The melody is given to a combination of accordion and flute, underscored by the usual strings, but played so lightly that they build a sense of the quiet flow by which water seeps. This theme is what you hear as the film begins, and from there, each entry in the score builds on this immersion, changing according to the situation, becoming tenser and more staccato when unexpected threats to Elisa and company arise or bouncier in Elisa’s moments of bliss. But the same sonic concepts remain. It is as complete a world in sound as it is in presentation, and it reveals a composer and director in perfect sync, melding their visions together to most effectively depict the setting of their dreams. Like Bernard Herrmann’s great scores for Psycho (1960) and North by Northwest (1959), they become as much a part of the cinematic experience as anything you see on screen.
Completing this otherworldly experience is a cast that seems singularly committed to bringing each facet of this story to life. It is an ensemble of remarkable performances of which I could sing the praises for days, but for the constraints of this singular review, I will focus only on a pair of performances. First, as Elisa, Hawkins is positively captivating. Her performance harkens back to the greatest silent film stars, relying on facial expression and emotive motions to convey a depth of character as complex as that perceived in any spoken role. From the first moment when she is alarmed by the sight of this new creature to the moment when she brings him hard-boiled eggs, and finally to when she stands in his embrace, her glances and motions reveal a woman falling in love just as effectively as if she told us about it verbally. I am brought back again and again to her eyes, and one shot in particular when she makes eye contact with Giles over the shoulder of the fish-man: we can only see half of her face, but the love radiating from her eye is palpable.
Standing there with Hawkins is Doug Jones, in full amphibian regalia. This is no new experience for him, as he donned a similar getup in Hellboy to play Abe Sapien, but del Toro and the make-up team have provided a costume unlike anything I’ve seen in modern film. The sapphire and turquoise hues of his skin give him an unmistakable presence, but it is his soul that Jones conveys so hauntingly. It is, while not silent, a performance without a single spoken word. We see his transition from terror, upon his initial arrival to the lab, slowly soften to reflect Elisa’s affections. Jones’ motions begin in a recognizably animalistic nature. They are jerky and sharp, but as he spends time with Elisa, they become smoother and more relaxed, never entirely human, but open body language nonetheless. Together, Jones and Hawkins illustrate the most unconventional of love stories with a pair of unprecedented performances, all in the pursuit of the most human and natural of all things: the act of falling in love. I never found myself questioning the validity of the feelings they had for each other because of whatever inter-species connection was happening. It is a poignant and romantic love story, and Jones and Hawkins deliver career-best performances in its service.
At its core, The Shape of Water is a love letter to all of its misunderstood and rejected characters, those, whether human or otherwise, who have been disregarded because of some perceived imperfection. The creature from the Amazon is not the monster; he is, by some brilliant miracle, the romantic interest. The heroine is a woman who cannot utter a single word but who tells us more about how to love and live beyond your limits than nearly any character I can recollect. Her confidants live in a world where central aspects of their souls are looked down upon, be that their skin color or sexual orientation, but they look beyond what the world thinks of them to do something incredibly moving. The film rarely delves into direct confrontation with the social issues it suggests — the exceptions being a pair of scenes in the diner where Giles develops a crush on the waiter, only to find out that he is both a racist and a homophobe, and a spattering of “your kind” comments that Strickland makes to Zelda. The movie is not interested in focusing on what differentiates these heroes, but rather on the common sense of moral integrity and empathy which they all feel, and which differentiates them from the many bigoted characters and views they come up against. Del Toro has crafted a deeply moving film that reminds audiences that it is the humanity in each of us that binds us together and that it should be stronger than anything we perceive as pushing us apart.