Especially in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water
After some big, big movies featuring Gothic horror (Crimson Peak) and giant robots battling giant monsters (Pacific Rim), director Guillermo del Toro returns to the smaller, fairy-tale films that first brought him widespread acclaim (think The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth) with The Shape of Water, a very unusual romance film.
Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa Esposito, a mute woman (she can hear, but the odd scars on both sides of her neck may be connected to her affliction) who works as part of a janitorial staff in some kind of government research facility located in Baltimore circa 1962. She has two good friends in her life, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) her co-worker, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), the next door neighbor she tends too who is so wrapped up in his work producing photo-realistic advertising art that he sometimes forgets to eat. He also happens to be gay. One day at work while cleaning one of the labs, the two women are present when a container carrying some sort of aquatic beast is wheeled in, to be deposited in the large tank in the room.
Elisa’s curiosity gets the better of her and she sneaks into the room on her own to find out exactly what is in the tank. The creature is some type of humanoid amphibian that Elisa finds herself connecting with through sign language, music, and hard-boiled eggs. When she learns that the government plans to vivisect the creature to study its unique breathing capabilities – to hopefully be used to help astronauts and further the space race – Elisa hatches a plan to rescue her new friend and set him free from the Baltimore docks (and living in Baltimore, I could not tell you where any of this film geography is supposed to be). But Elisa has to contend with the scary, violent agent (Michael Shannon) assigned to protect the asset and one of the scientists (Michael Stuhlbarg), who also happens to be working for the Russians, who have their own plan to kidnap the creature to aid them in the space race. As Elisa and the creature spend more time together and bond, she has to decide if she ultimately can let him go or if she must let him go to save his life.
The Shape of Water is certainly an original film, but we expect no less from the mind of del Toro. The production design is stunning, not really anything beautiful, but still grand in a seedy kind of way, from the apartments of Elisa and Giles, to the dark, dank lab where the creature is being held. And it all feels appropriate and timeless. Too many period films use designs and costumes from the specific year in which they are set but realistically, not many people are going to have their homes decorated and furnished in all the latest styles. The one exception to this is the sharp new teal Cadillac Shannon’s character buys.
The cast is uniformly terrific. Spencer doesn’t have much to do except react to whatever Elisa is getting herself into, but she still brings an authenticity to Zelda, that friend who would do anything for you. And she does. She also has some great dialog and serves as the interpreter for Elisa while on the job. Jenkins gives a focus to Giles, whether it’s on his work, the classic musicals he loves, or the counter man at the pie restaurant he frequents, believing the man’s country charm is directed solely at him (it’s not and the guy isn’t even from the South). Shannon brings a frightening intensity and cruelty to his character Strickland, making him not someone you want to cross … ever. Stuhlbarg has some nice layers to his character as he has to put on the act of being interested in studying the creature while working with his Russian compatriots to plan their hijacking of the beast. But he begins to feel a lot of empathy for the creature, even helping Elisa with instructions on how to care for him after she breaks him out of the facility.
Doug Jones, the man who is always in the creature suits in del Toro’s films, has to rely solely on his body language to relate whatever the creature is feeling or experiencing. But we can tell exactly what’s going on with him thanks to Jones’s uncanny ability to emote through layers of foam rubber. Hawkins, like Jones, has to rely on body language and facial expressions to relay what her character is going through. When she uses sign language, she can get very expressive even when Zelda or Giles aren’t interpreting verbally in the same excited or agitated manner in which she is “speaking.” But like in the silent movie era, neither Hawkins or Jones need to say a word for us to understand exactly what’s going through their minds. Hawkins is sure to get a lot of award recognition (she’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe) but it’s a shame the various academies won’t consider Jones’s performance simply because he’s wearing a rubber monster suit. His performance is equal to Hawkins’s.
The romantic angle of The Shape of Water may not be for everyone but it’s really no different than Beauty and the Beast. It’s all about suspending disbelief and just accepting this story as a fairy tale. I believe, and I may be wrong, that there is also something deeper to the story than just the love story. Looking at the makeup of the four main characters – a mute woman, a black woman, a gay man, and a creature from a black lagoon in Brazil (and yes, this movie is clearly an homage to those classic monster movies) – and the era in which the film is set, it’s really about how this group of societal outsiders came together for something much bigger than themselves, outsmarting the average white, American man. I don’t know if del Toro explicitly intended for audiences to read more into this than there may be but I like that the story is really how the “little guys” fight to triumph over adversity and do the right thing. This brings many layers to the story and elevates The Shape of Water to something more than just a bizarre love story.