There are few directors who are as beloved by his fans and respected by his colleagues and partners in Hollywood as Guillermo Del Toro. The make-up artist turned writer/director/producer has become one of the iconic directors of our time with smaller horror-fantasies like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth and studio blockbusters like Blade II(believe it!), Hellboy, and more recently, Pacific Rim. His latest film, The Shape of Water, takes him away from the spectacle and back to his roots–romance and monster movies.
The Shape of Water opens like all great fairytales,”Once upon a time,” before shifting to the unfairytale-like setting of a 1960s research facility where we meet the mute janitor, Elise Esposito(Sally Hawkins). One dreary day, the facilities head of security, Richard Strickland(Michael Shannon) escorts a captive amphibian man(Doug Jones) into the building for study. While cleaning the creature’s cell, Elise begins to form an unlikely bond with him through her music. She confides in her coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and neighbor, Giles(Richard Jenkins), about her unlikely connection that is slowly blossoming into romance. When it becomes clear that Strickland and his superiors intend on violently experimenting on the amphibian man, Elise works with Zelda and an unlikely ally, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler(Michael Stuhlbarg), to protect her new friend and love interest from harm.
The Shape of Water is a film that is stunning in nearly each and every moment. Everything from the set design to the score works together to create an immersive lived in an atmosphere for the cast of A-list performers to thrive. Sally Hawkins delivers a powerhouse turn as the film’s lead. The role relies completely on the subtlety of her expressions without words and her emotions are expressed solely from the looks on her face and physical performance. It’s a rare challenge for an actress that Hawkins elevates to Oscar-caliber status. She’s supported by the finest character actors working in Hollywood including Michael Shannon who continues to prove that nobody can play the entitled alpha-male better and Richard Jenkins who is given the opportunity to express the depths he can take his character’s conflict of living privately as a gay man in 1960s America.
The great care and attention to detail that goes into each and every frame of the film remains one of Del Toro’s greatest strengths. Despite painting such a bleak picture of the 1960s, he’s still able to breathe wonder and whimsey into Elise’s romance with the amphibian man. As filmgoers and Hollywood, in general, continue to head down the dark road of sarcasm and eternal irony, Guillermo Del Toro remains fearless and wears his emotions and sincere passion for the characters and themes in The Shape of Water on his sleeve. Genuine is an increasingly rare descriptor that comes to mind when thinking about this movie.
Del Toro’s commitment doesn’t stop at being an incredibly emotional and heartfelt movie. He also crafts a layered and razor-sharp script that utilizes the best parts of his favorite genres. It’s paced like a Romeo and Juliet romance, looks like a sci-fi period piece, and still delivers the moments of magic and awe that are inherent in the fairytales that inspired another of his critical darlings, Pan’s Labyrinth. The film operates on yet an even deeper level. Running beneath his experimentation with genre is a harsh cultural critique of post-1950s conservatism, toxic masculinity and the oppressive systems that actively weed out and squash people who don’t play by their rules. The Shape of Water never fails to deliver on any of the intricate levels its operating.
The Shape of Water is the beautiful intersection of all of these genres when they collide with the harsher realities of society. The most beautiful thing about the film is its optimism and belief that the love can help us defeat the world’s darkest adversities. It’s one of a kind and is among the most emotional filmgoing experiences of the year because it begs us all to look inward and reflect on why we fear “the other” and question why we aren’t choosing to them love instead.
RECOMMENDATION: Watch this movie at FULL PRICE in the theater. Prepare your wallets for the blu-ray
PAIR WITH: Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla(1954)
READ MY SPOILER-FILLED ANALYSIS BELOW
LEARNING TO OVERCOME OUR FEARS TO LOVE “THE OTHER”
“I think when we wake up in the morning, we can choose between fear and love. Every morning. And every morning, if you choose one, that doesn’t define you until the end…The way you end your story is important. It’s important that we choose love over fear, because love is the answer. Silly as it may sound, it is the f***ing answer to everything.” – Guillermo Del Toro, Toronto International Film Festival 2017
2017 has been an especially tumultuous year where people around the globe seem more divided than ever. In this year alone, the US has withdrawn from international peace agreements, the evils of white supremacy returned to the mainstream conversation during the Charlottesville riots, families and households have been divided over whether kneeling during the US National Anthem is “patriotic,” and most sinisterly, legions ofmisguided Rick and Morty fanboys rioted against McDonald’s across the country when their coveted Szechuan sauce supply was low. Heck, even Star Wars fans have struggled to remain civil when discussing their opinions on The Last Jedi. In this pivotal period in history as western civilization continues to transition into a more connected information age, we’ve found more ways to divide ourselves than ever before. Looking back, it’s been a rough trip around the sun for people from all walks of life and many of these open wounds have yet to heal or be resolved, and yet, Guillermo Del Toro still believed in the power of empathy enough to make The Shape of Water, a film arguing for compassion and building bridges with love in the face of overwhelming fear. Del Toro insists that by choosing love each and every day, we can resist violence, crawl out from underneath oppressive systems and lift others up to live better, more fulfilling lives.
It’s a notion steeped in romanticism, the sort classical romanticism Wordsworth wrote about in “The World is Too Much With Us” at the turn of the 19th century that rejected the law and order philosophy of modernism and the harm the industrial revolution was causing in nature and the human soul. Del Toro puts the blame on society’s fear-driven culture on the systems and institutions that have become prominent through the rise of the industrial revolution and consumerism.
The Shape of Water explores the values and traditions of the 1960s Leave It To Beaver family through its primary antagonist, Strickland, who represents the ideal middle class and middle-aged male based on 1950s cultural values. He holds a steady job that requires him to assert this leadership and authority, has a trophy wife, the average 2.3 children, and partway through the film, he even acquires the ultimate status symbol, an expensive Cadillac. Most importantly, he’s a man driven by delivering results. He’s fulfilled every expectation laid upon men of his status at the time, but his life is painfully hollow.
Strickland’s dissatisfaction is demonstrated when his wife offers to make love with him and his reaction is to clinically go through the motions. During their intimacy, he completely disregards his wife’s experience, so much that he doesn’t realize he has wiped the blood from his rotting hand on her face during the process. He’s unhappy and only lives to survive and accomplish his job because that’s what successful masculine men were expected to do in the decades following World War II. Strickland puts everything that does not fit into his “traditional” worldview and lifestyle into the category of “other.” He dehumanizes the amphibian man when he states “You may think, ‘That thing looks human.’ Stands on two legs, right? But – we’re created in the Lord’s image. You don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?” He continues to take it a step further when he tells Zelda, an African-American woman, that “God was made a little more in my image than in yours” insinuating he is superior because of his race and gender. Strickland’s discontent and misery spread to everyone around him when he asserts his expectations and way of life onto others in the name of his own ego and success. Whenever he’s pressured to deliver unrealistic results, he lashes out, becomes violent and even starts to reduce the people around him as less than human.
This greatly contrasts Elise, who, despite being unable to speak has much deeper relationships and human connections with her friend Zelda and neighbor Giles than Strickland does with his family. She goes to work and punches the clock like everybody else, but is less worried about moving past her job as a custodian than she is living a fulfilling life with people she loves. She’s often overlooked by people at work and strangers on the street, but instead of sinking into despair, she embraces it and learns to love people who have been pushed to those same fringes of society because of their race, sexual orientation, or other disability.
Elise has learned to live with her condition and have empathy for others who are marginalized by the more violently results-oriented people like Strickland. Because she lives a life of compassion, her connection with the amphibian man isn’t just a possibility, but rather an inevitability. And in the end, that’s where she finds her happiness–embracing someone who is almost otherworldly in his appearance but remains incredibly human at heart.
Del Toro is insisting that many of the systems and institutions present in society, like those demonstrated through Strickland, are designed to divide people, but ultimately, he suggests that the way to learn how to love someone who acts, looks or values things differently is to find the common ground, empathize, and take that daring leap of faith that they will reciprocate. It could be an obnoxious neighbor, a difficult coworker, someone who doesn’t look like you, or a person from another country or a rival political party. In the face of great fear, Del Toro is challenging viewers to choose to love. In a year when it seems like all people can do is shout at each other in the living room or over the internet, this film’s more optimistic and romantic take is more poignant and important than ever.