It’s no secret that Guillermo Del Toro has been fascinated with classic movie monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster, but one monster he seems to have had a particular interest in is the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Years ago Guillermo was in talks with Universal to remake the classic creature feature, but like so many of his other projects, it never came to fruition. However, from the ashes of that project has risen a new take on fishman creatures and it’s a beautiful treat.
“The Shape of Water” follows the daily trials of a mute cleaning lady named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) as she toils away cleaning a lab with her best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). When she isn’t cleaning up the lab she spends her time with her only other friend, an elderly gentleman named Giles (Richard Jenkins). Her daily routine is interrupted, though, by the arrival of two very strange men. One is a ferocious government agent named Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and the other is a mysterious aquatic creature (Doug Jones). Elisa soon forms a strong bond with the creature and devises a daring plan to save him from the lab and Strickland.
As with most of Guillermo Del Toro’s films, this story is immediately obvious as a metaphor for greater issues. The film takes place in 1960s America, so there are heavy themes of mistrust as America is going through it’s Cold War period and the fear of Communism is on the rise. As a result, the film examines who you can trust and who is the real monster. It can be a bit heavy handed, but “The Shape of Water” is like a grand fairytale so the heavy handed metaphors are expected. “Shape of Water” also, surprisingly, offers an examination of sexuality and how integral it is to the human experience. I was actually surprised by how up front it was about it as we get a masturbation scene within the first few minutes of the movie. However, the story really excels off the strength of its characters.
Elisa, Zelda, and Giles are wonderfully warm characters. Elisa is the heart of the story. There’s a tragic beauty to her as she feels completely cut off from the world around her and utterly alone. However, we also see the hopeless romantic side of her as she dreams of connecting with someone. Her character is mute, so all of her dialog is done through sign language. As a result a lot of her lines are subtitles or people communicating for her, still, Sally Hawkins gives a powerful performance purely through her facial expressions. There’s one scene in particular that ripped my heart out and will undoubtedly stick with me for years to come.
Zelda and Giles are the primary “comedic” reliefs of the film, but to label them as being just that would be a disservice to their roles in the film. Octavia Spencer does an excellent job of portraying Zelda who is reserved and knows when to bite her tongue, but is full of fire and willing to defend her friend. Richard Jenkins as Giles, though, may be one of my favorite supporting characters of the year. Elisa may be the main character, but Giles has so much going on in his subplot that you feel like he has his own movie going on and it’s just intersecting with hers. Giles is struggling with the feeling of becoming obsolete at work and he’s also dealing with the harsh reality of being a gay man in the ’60s. He’s a deeply fascinating character and Richard Jenkins is brilliant in the role.
However, it wouldn’t be a traditional Guillermo Del Toro movie without a truly menacing human figure. And that’s, of course, where Michael Shannon comes in. If you’ve ever seen Michael Shannon in anything you know that he can be a truly imposing figure and he’s no different here. His Strickland cooly terrorizes Elisa and Zelda throughout the film and shows such a flagrant disregard for his fellow staff members. He barely acknowledges their presence and ensures that they feel like they are beneath him. Michael Shannon is a master of being menacing and Strickland is a shining example of what he does best.
And what of the star of the show? The fishman creature actually doesn’t get a whole to do in the film as he’s mostly a captive, but Doug Jones physicality still shines through when he needs to portray the raw emotion the creature expresses. Sadly Doug Jones doesn’t get a whole lot to do with the role, but it’s an impressive feat to see him bring the creature to life regardless.
“The Shape of Water” is a beautiful love letter to the classic movie monster and possibly the most stunning movie Del Toro has crafted yet. The themes of love, loneliness, and monsters blend together so well and creates a compelling narrative that touched me in a profound way. It’s clear that everything on the screen from the characters, to the sets, to the narrative was all lovingly crafted by a man who had grown up idolizing these creatures. This may not be horror in the purest sense, but it is certainly a movie made for people like us who have a passion and love for the more tragic and misunderstood creatures. Seek this movie out when it comes to a theater near you, it will certainly not disappoint.