OnScreen Review: "The Shape of Water"

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Guillermo del Toro is a fascinating director. When he is not doing big budget spectacle like Pacific Rim or Hellboy, he is making poignantly beautiful films like The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth. The Shape of Water is his latest film and it is very much in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth as a Beauty and the Beast type of modern fable.

The Beauty in this story is Elisa, a mute janitor portrayed by Sally Hawkins. She works nights as a janitor in a top secret government facility in Baltimore in the early 1960s. Most of her time at work is spent working alongside friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who chats her ear off. When home, which is an apartment over a movie theater, she spends much of her free time with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay man who was an illustrator for an ad company but now forced to do freelance work because of his sexual orientation.

Hawkins’ Elisa, despite being mute and publicly demure, is a vibrant character, bringing a notable dose of whimsy to the film in the vein of Audrey Tautou in Amelie. There are several small little moments of joy with Elisa, such as when she leaves for work after visiting with Giles and mimics the tap-dancing she saw on his television as she walks down the hallway. Similar to the character Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, there are hints of Eilsa being more than just an ordinary girl in an ordinary world. She was found as an orphan beside the sea with scars on her neck that are believed to have caused her inability to speak. The scars, not so coincidentally, look like healed over gills. Also, when she rides the bus to and from work, the rain on the window outside her set seems to follow her finger as she writes on the condensation.

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The Beast, referred to as the “Asset” is an amphibian-humanoid creature that is brought to the facility where Elisa works. The “monster” is inspired by the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It also bears a strong resemblance to another del Toro creature, Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movies. Not surprisingly, the Asset is portrayed by frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones, who also portrayed Abe in Hellboy, and several characters in Pan’s Labyrinth. Jones, as usual with del Toro creations, brings an elegance and nobility to the monstrous-looking creature.

The “Asset” as it is known, was brought to the facility by a G-man, Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who dragged it out of the Amazon waters of South America. In charge of the security and research of the creature, Strickland is a cruel and self-centered man. The film is set in the early 60s, the height of the Cold War, and Strickland is a devout zealot and his religion is America. He is the kind of person that buys in whole hog on the notion that the future will include jetpacks for everyone because “This is America.” It’s a menacing performance from one of the best actors out there.

The relationship that grows between Elisa and the amphibious creature is a touching, if at times weird and explicit, love story. It starts with a simple act of kindness from Elisa when no one else has shown the creature anything but brutality. Soon they are sharing boiled eggs and listening to music during Elisa’s lunch break and a limited communication through sign language that she begins to teach him. And Strickland, as well as a Russian spies, threaten the existence of the creature and spurs Elisa on to act.

Guillermo del Toro is an incredibly gifted visual director, and in this film he mixes it perfectly with the tender and vulnerable script. Several images are sure to linger in the mind of anyone who sees it. The opening of the film starts underwater going through tunnels, into a hallway, and eventually into Elisa’s apartment where the water recedes and she gently floats down to her couch where she wakes up from sleep. It’s a terrific opening and only a hint of what is to come. There is a beautiful moment when the creature is standing in an empty movie theater watching a scene from The Story of Ruth (1960). And perhaps most impressive of all is a dream-like sequence where the film seems to enter Elisa’s thoughts and there is an extended song and dance between Elisa and the creature in the style of an old Hollywood film featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

There is also the distinct del Toro undercurrent of darkness lurking beneath, or mixed with, the beautiful. This is embodied mostly by Strickland and how he treats the creature and how demeaning he is to Elisa and others, but also in a wound that he suffers early on, resulting in the severing of two fingers. The fingers are retrieved and sewn back on, but get progressively blacker and rotting over the course of the film, no doubt symbolic of how truly rotten his toxic masculinity is. But this also comes out in the business interactions of Giles as he tries to sell his painting of a family dinner for an ad to a former boss.

It’s no coincidence that the opening of the film features a voiceover from Richard Jenkins talking about the story about the unfold, and the “monster who tried to destroy it all.” The monster being referred to here is not the creature at all, but Strickland. Elisa, the creature, Giles, and even Zelda, are considered as “others” to varying degrees. It’s also probably not a coincidence that the film is set in the early 60s, on the cusp of radical change where inroads would start to be made for the “others” of society and people like Strickland would begin to see the world make less and less sense for them.

 The Shape of Water is one of the best films of the year. It fits well alongside Pan’s Labyrinth as one of Guillermo del Toro’s best works, if not his best film outright. Elisa is a emotionally powerful performance brought to life by Sally Hawkins. The creature effects are impressive, Doug Jones is his usual terrific self in a del Toro film, the visual imagery is stunning, and the story is one of the best that del Toro has put together. It checks all of the boxes for being a worthy awards contender.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars