Guillermo del Toro is back in top form in The Shape of Water. It’s a mashup of genres, blending monster, romance, and a period setting into an artistic beauty. Doug Jones (whom del Toro also worked with most recently in Crimson Peak) is one of the few actors who can consistently emote through a full-body latex suit. But it’s Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito, as a mute janitor, who is the breakout star of the film.
To expect a del Toro film to be a beautifully crafted production is kind of like saying you expect water to be wet. Set in 1963, the feel of the era is more than a set, but the various ways that the characters interact and go about their lives. The scientist that is offended at taking the Lord’s name in vain, a nice-boy diner owner that winds up being racist, a best friend that’s alone because he’s gay and has no way to reach out to others without risking the public wrath. There’s lots of side threads weaving in and out of this film, with the characters of the sort that you know have had long lives before they entered the scene.
The main story of the film is that a new “asset” has been delivered to a military research lab for study. It turns out that the asset is a 7′ tall amphibian humanoid that had been captured from the rivers of the Amazon. He had been “pulled from the mud,” where the locals had thought him a god. An evil Colonel Strickland (played by Michael Shannon as a blend of his Nelson Van Alden from Boardwalk Empire and Dodge Landon from Rise of the Planet of the Apes) who enjoys torturing the creature as much as for sport as for trying to get any actual response from it. Elisa encounters the creature as she cleans the lab and takes pity on its captivity and isolation. In the same way that she is alone because of her muteness, she sees it as alone because it’s different. It, too, can’t communicate with those around it, so she begins to try to reach out.
Where Stephen King‘s It had the Losers Club made up of kids, Water has its own form of Losers Club. A black woman, a foundering and aging gay artist, the monster, and the mute. Them against the world, the establishment, and others underestimating all of their abilities. As the story evolves each of them surprises each other and themselves with what they are able to do when up against a wall.
The romance aspect does go further on screen than we’ve generally come across on a regular basis in Swamp Thing/heroine films. But a water-submerged bathroom winds up to be a beautiful moment between Elisa and the monster. Whomever tapped her for this film was inspired — she is able to combine a comfort in her own body and sensualness that Hollywood generally doesn’t give an opportunity to most actresses, let alone someone who’s a mute and not tarted-up. Usually a female character who has her own sexuality will only be shown onscreen as sexy (in her dress, mannerisms, etc.). Here, del Toro lets someone who is, for lack of a better term, normal and restrained in public, be a sexual being in private. It’s such a small thing, because it’s true in life, but on screen, it’s nearly novel.
The film is wonderfully executed. By the end, the surprises aren’t huge, but it’s still satisfying by the time the credits scroll. Perhaps its main flaw is a hint that is shown almost at the beginning of the film, which shows the story’s cards a bit too plainly. Still, it works. Perfect, no. Satisfying, yes. Very.
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