Overview: Against the backdrop of the Cold War, a mute woman who works in a research facility begins a romance with a creature of unknown origin. Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2017; Rated R; 123 minutes.
The Others: For centuries, otherness has been the symbol of the enemy in every form of artistic expression. It is a simple shortcut that the human brain can make in an instant, sometimes without a single, recognizable thought. If something is obviously aberrant from the norm, it must be bad. But there is problem with normality: it doesn’t truly exist. We are all aberrant, in one way or another. Everyone has felt odd, different, as if we are on the outside looking in. We are all the other. And finally, there is a piece of art that truly understands that feeling of otherness. The Shape of Water is for all of us.
Guillermo del Toro, the master of the dark fairy tale, has returned to the monstrous. This is no surprise, but in this case, The Shape of Water dives into a story that is pure love. With his deft hand behind the camera, there is no sense of shame or cynicism in its love story. Two of the aforementioned others, a mute woman, Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins and the Amphibian Man portrayed by GDT veteran Doug Jones, fall in love without a single word uttered. This lack of verbosity aids the audience to feel every interaction just as intensely as those in love. Del Toro’s obvious admiration for the monstrous is a thread one can follow easily throughout his work. But The Shape of Water may represent his most empathetic gaze into the world of creatures. The audience sees this creature as Elisa does, not as a monster but as a being worthy of love, almost intoxicatingly so.
Dark and Light: This intoxication, a raw sexual energy, is present through the entire runtime. This is a love story, but it is no way chaste. The fairy tale nature of the film does not mean that the love story culminates with a kiss and a fade to black. This sexual pulse is due to a pair of astounding performances and a few sharp choices from the director and his writing partner, Vanessa Taylor. The script introduces Elisa in a wonderfully structured montage. This shows us much about the character and not solely her inability to speak. She is immediately seen as both a sexual being and a caretaker. She is a woman with a disability, but it does not control her world or limit her joy. One only need look at her interactions with her friends to see this unabashed enjoyment of her life, whether it is her laughing with her co-worker or sharing her love of film with her neighbor. Gone is the idea of a person with a difference in ability being unable to live a full life, regardless of how the world outside sees her. She has desires, a purpose, and important friendships. It is fitting that her friends are also others, specifically a gay man and a black woman, played by Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer, respectively. And these others are among the most human, kindhearted individuals you will find on film. They are dependable and know Elisa’s goodness and her struggles. On the other hand, Doug Jones’ entirely physical performance is just as important as Sally Hawkins’ human one. When we finally see the Amphibian Man at his full strength, Jones’ physicality and the incredible suit he inhabits, which was based on a sketch by del Toro himself, combine to create a character worth of both worship and love. But there is a darkness, a frightening edge to him, even though we see him through her eyes. That darkness only serves to illuminate the tenderness brought to life by the love between him and Elisa. He is indeed a powerful being brought low by the true monsters of the film. These monsters, particularly the character of Strickland, played with terrifying cruelty by Michael Shannon, show us the worst sides of humanity. It is natural to distance ourselves from this evil, but it is all around us.
Del Toro’s decision to focus on the downtrodden of society against a governmental organization surrounded by secrecy is an important one. It shows us our own power, despite the evidence that may surround us. A group of people seen as nothings, or worse, actual affronts to decency, may band together for the right cause. In the case of The Shape of Water, that cause is simple human kindness. There is always an opportunity to turn a blind eye, to believe that we cannot make a difference, to make the safe decision. But our humanity depends on making the decent choice instead of the pragmatic one. Elisa and her friends are involved in nothing short of a battle for their individual humanity, goodness, and love. The risks that these three take are worthy, and risks that we should all take given the opportunity.
Overall: The Shape of Water, despite its eye-catching creature effects, focuses on the humanity of its characters. Brilliant direction from Guillermo del Toro, paired with staggering performances from Hawkins and Jones, guides the audience on a journey of decency and love, without a hint of skepticism.