The Shape of Water (2017)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writer: Dan Laustsen
Cinematographer: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Producer: Guillermo del Toro and J. Miles Dale
by Jon Cvack
After I struggling year after year over what to get my parents and sister for Christmas, I started taking them out to a meal and a movie where we could share an experience rather than buying them a generic gift card. Last year I took them to The Big Short (2015), which I was seeing for the third time, and figured they might enjoy, taking a complex idea and explaining it with great characters and an accessible story. Unfortunately, being avid Fox News viewers and my dad being a banker, it wasn’t their favorite screening. Last year, my dad had initially mentioned Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and so I figured pitching Star Wars: The Force Awakens would be moderate enough to please all sides. It didn’t, with my sister uninterested and my mom saying she watched a film critic mention how The Shape of Water was his favorite film of the year (which I was surprised to hear, for reason below).
The Shape of Water is one of my top three films of the year, completely exceeding my expectations. It’s a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film meets a 1950s Creature Film, taking and progressing Jeunet’s defined style and implementing it within the worlds Guillermo is so great at creating, providing just enough sex and gore to satisfy our wonder at how to update a now classical period.
The film opens up at an old single screen theater in 1962 Baltimore, where a muted woman Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) wakes up everyday with the same routine of making eggs followed by masturbating in the bathtub (which even at 31 years old somehow became one of the more embarrassing movie watching experiences I’ve ever shared with my family [American Beauty still holds first place]).
Ellen works at a secret underground government laboratory with one of her best friends, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). A new creature has been captured from South America, held in a steel water casket, where the facility’s researchers will begin to examine it. It was brought in by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon; providing possibly his finest role), who eats green candies and is one of the most despicable characters I’ve seen on screen in years.
Elisa is enraptured by the creature, even after Strickland is brutally attacked, losing two of his fingers, which Ellen is forced to pick up in the lab, then offering some hard boiled eggs to the creature who enjoys the treat. Soon she starts abandoning Zelda at lunch in order to spend more time with the creature, quickly developing an emotional attraction that, while very weird, is somehow believable due to Sally Hawkins prowess. However, when lab scientist and soviet spy Robert Huffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) finds Ellen hiding in the lab during an impromptu visit from the General in charge of the operation and the General orders them to destroy the creature, Huffstetler decides to help Elisa kidnap the creature from the lab.
She recruits her gay neighbor and ailing illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins), who also struggles with loneliness, attempting to finish his latest project in the hopes he can finally get his career back on track. The performance is one of Jenkins’ best, which while embodying the melancholy found in most of his roles, somehow adds an extraordinary amount of depth, substance, and development without feeling routine. Zelda joins the mini-crew as well and so the film transforms from a dreamy creature feature love story and into a heist film.
What makes the film work so well is its ability to gradually exceed your expectations, compounding and growing exponentially to where, by the end, I honestly had no idea where it was going. And while such a strategy has failed time and again with fantasy and sci-fi movies - which often abandon any attempt at redesigning story by punching up the effects to the maximum degree - Guillermo instead takes all of the tropes that worked through the history of cinema and adds a modern touch, going places that even Jean-Pierre Jeunet wasn’t willing to; in this case, violence and gore, which again, while being easy to do wrong and easily offend, operates just as beautifully as the world it exists in.
Elisa goes on to sleep with the creature, and while I was dreading the inevitable situation (again, was with my parents) and though it wasn’t perfect, Guillermo somehow pulled it off. There have been stories the explore similar ideas - Beauty and the Beast, Hunchback of Notre Dame, etc. - but so often they have focused on romance between the two characters rather than the raw desire. When Elisa touches the creature, and given her morning masturbation routine, we see her feelings are much more rooted in lust than love; and that beyond companionship is the fundamental urge to have that desire satiated
In a year where films like Get Out (2017) and Lady Bird (2017) seem to be revered for the wrong reasons (I still think Get Out’s position as a top film of the year embodies the exact concern the film is criticizing; that is, replace the film’s Obama third term joke with a bunch of white film critics declaring Get Out is the best film in years; again, imagine all of them declaring they can’t possibly be racist because of this fact). If we want to explore gender, sex, inclusion, and equality than The Shape of Water is as fine as they come. Given that it’s main characters all range from gay to colored to queer, it’s demonstrably the most egalitarian film of the year.
Aside from soaring beyond narrative expectations is flipping our own expectations about sex and love on their head; Jenkins greatest accomplishment is making us love him as a friend, wishing we had some one like him in our lives, in which his sexuality disappears and we see him for the great person he is. The same goes for Zelda, and of course, due to Guillermos’ and Hawkins’ great talent, we are able to see one of the most queer relationships on screen and in the most intimate terms.
The greatest stories build empathy and hold up the looking glass to our own world. This film shines in that regard; using a fantastical story as a way to show that there’re a broad range of people in the world, and how many of them are just like you and me, with the same desire to be loved and touched. And with how hard it is to find such things, the choice a person makes about who provides such things is really none of our business. We should simply be happy that they’re happy, and spend more time worrying about those who actually hurt people.
BELOW: In saying all this, the film is strikingly similar to Splash (1984)
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