Directed by Guillermo del Toro
The Shape of Water is about the relationship between a mute woman and an amphibious creature. Set during the Cold War of the 1960s, the film is a story about characters who are rejected because they’re different and, thus, less than. Of the main characters, the only straight white man is the villain, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). The other characters are black, gay, mute and mutant, and each is aware of the limitations the world imposes on them.
The film is an adult fairytale, much in the way of Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s 2006 film. Like that movie, this one is set against the backdrop of war, and it deals in a type of fantasy that creeps into our reality and could kill us. The fantastical creatures of Pan’s Labyrinth were as dangerous as the as military general who ruins young Ofelia’s life, and the amphibious creature of The Shape of Water is shown to be anything but harmless.
Guillermo del Toro’s story is one of romance, hope and uplifting views of humanity, but it’s told through a story involving gunshot wounds, stabbings, slit throats, severed fingers and feline decapitations. He makes an effort to show the danger present in this kind of story, something that likely would have been washed away in another broader telling of the same narrative.
This is a beautiful story about love among people who would be considered misfits, and it’s a strange but effective blending of real and fantasy. The more fantastical and visually arresting moments of the film do not occur in a separate time or place but in the same world as the rest of the film. It runs contrary to how the world of Harry Potter is separate from the world of the muggles. Guillermo del Toro’s vision of The Shape of Water is a world of magical realism, one in which the arrival of a human-shaped sea creature is treated as relatively normal, but the inter-species love is treated like a slightly less doomed Romeo & Juliet. The best way I can describe the tone of the film is something like a Coen Brothers’ take on Harry Potter.
The Shape of Water is a little bit of everything. It’s funny, dramatic, frightening and extremely heartwarming. It’s a story that touches on racism, religion and war, but it focuses more on the playful magical realism of the film.
The mute woman, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works nights as a janitor at a secret research facility along with her friend and coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Before we meet her at work, we meet her in her daily routine. She lives above a movie theater and right next door to her best friend, a closeted gay man named Giles (Richard Jenkins). Elisa’s life is carefully planned and constructed. Everything runs on time, and we get a sense that every day of her life blends into the next.
Still, she doesn’t seem to mind. Elisa is a sweet woman possibly made more sweet by her silence. She listens as Zelda playfully complains about her husband, either because she wants to or because she has to. Either way, the partnership works.
One evening, Elisa and Zelda watch as a heavily-guarded creature is wheeled into a room. Elisa is immediately drawn to this creature (played by Doug Jones), and she develops more empathy for him when it becomes clear that he is being tortured by a domineering figure (Michael Shannon) who goes out of his way to intimidate her as well. This man, Strickland, sets himself up as a clear and affecting villain. The threat he poses to the creature exists only because the creature is different, an affront to Strickland’s strict religious beliefs. Strickland will demonstrate a similar ill-will towards anyone who is not exactly like him, which is just about everyone.
Strickland represents the dominant ideology of America at this time. There is a brief detour from the main plot of the film in which we follow Strickland home. On the surface he is the model American citizen. He is a handsome enough man with a dutiful 60s housewife, two beautiful children and soon a shiny teal Cadillac. And at the same time he is intensely depraved. This sequence feels like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet as it pointedly undermines a nostalgic, even romanticized version of a specific time and place in America. On the surface this is one thing, and underneath it is something else entirely. Guillermo del Toro acknowledges the impossible to ignore gap between something so superficially beautiful and so based on backwards thinking. This is an appealing image of an American family, but it’s built on top of a line of thinking that casts aside anyone who might be considered other and actively antagonizes them. It’s some racist, bigoted thinking.
In contrast to Strickland’s purposefully ordinary life, Elisa might as well already live in a fairytale. Again, she lives in a beautiful apartment with giant windows next to her friend and above a movie theater. She is quirk personified.
Elisa’s best friend, Giles, is an artist who is implied to have been fired from his last job due to his homosexuality. He demonstrates an attraction to a man who works at a local diner, though soon this man will deliver a one-two punch of unlikability as he expresses disgust towards Giles’ attraction for him followed by an immediate reminder that he is as racist as you’d expect considering this time period.
This moment depresses Giles and reminds him that his only true friend is his neighbor, Elisa. It also comes at a moment when Elisa needs him most.
See, Elisa quickly falls for the sea creature who’s continually tortured at the research facility where she works. She shows him affection and begins to teach him sign language. When she finds out that Strickland wishes to dissect the creature, she decides she must help him escape, thus saving him. This is when she asks for Giles’ help, and together they initiate an unlikely plan that will free the imprisoned creature.
In the second half of the film, the creature lives in Elisa’s bathtub, and she continues to bond with him while Strickland becomes more and more unravelled as he tries to track down his prized possession.
In this part of the film, Elisa’s relationship with the creature becomes romantic, even after the creature reminds them he’s still ‘wild’ when he kills one of Giles’ cats and escapes the apartment. There is no drawn out chase, however, as Elisa finds the creature enraptured by a film in the theater below.
They make a plan to release the creature back into the wild, though this is accelerated when an important aid to their plans, a Russian spy (Michael Stuhlbarg) is killed and Strickland tracks them down. In a final showdown, the creature and Elisa are shot and apparently killed, though by this point the creature has demonstrated a healing ability which comes in handy. He comes back to life, strides over to Strickland and cuts his throat after the God-fearing man finally admits, “maybe you are a god.” After that, the creature brings Elisa into the sea beneath them and revives her, giving her an ability to breathe under water.
The Shape of Water is captivating. It follows a conventional plot structure, but you’re made to care deeply about these characters that it doesn’t matter. It also helps that del Toro commits deeply to his story. We see just how violent the creature can be and how loving he can be. Some studios/producers might think it too much to have a likable character brutally eat the head of a cat, and they might think it too risqué to have an amphibious creature have sex with the leading lady. Hell, there’s even a quick black and white dance number in which Elisa and the creature gracefully dance around a stage like in the old films she and Giles enjoy.
The film follows a familiar structure, but it digs more deeply into its emotion than any movie I’ve seen recently. When del Toro wants us to understand what it’s like for these characters to feel shoved to the side, he makes us feel their pain. We feel their rejection, the abuse they face and their shared affections and passions. Even the smallest moments are imbued with serious but light and lived-in affection. The way Elisa and Zelda banter, makes it clear they love each other, and despite Zelda’s complaints about her husband, you can tell how much she loves him.
The way Giles and Elisa mimic a tap dancing number they watch on tv is delightfully affectionate, and it all helps highlight the characters’ goodness. Like anybody, they surely have their flaws, but this film isn’t concerned with them because it’s all the world around them is concerned with.
The Shape of Water makes a concerted effort to show these characters’ best traits, but when they try to reach out and connect with their community, they are rejected and burned.
Elisa’s budding romance with the amphibious creature is just a metaphor for what is withheld from characters like Zelda and Giles. The film’s title refers to love. In a concluding narration by Giles, he discusses how the love felt between two people can transcend their physical shapes and spread all around like water. So as Elisa and the creature lovingly embrace, submerged in the ocean, as the film fades to black, we can see this as the union between any two people or between everyone.
I guess the film’s simplest message is just that we all can and should be loved, but we live in a world that would deny this to people simply because they’re different. It’s a fairytale, again, but it’s made for adults. It’s as magical as the best fairytales, as dramatic as the best heist movies and as funny as the best comedies. It’s a little bit of everything.
Up Next: East of Eden (1955), Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Wings of Desire (1987)