Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors. I am not as familiar with his early, Spanish language work, but from Hellboy on I’ve been a big a fan. While I was already on board with The Shape of Water just from knowing he was directing it; everything else I heard about it just made it sound better. The Shape of Water has del Toro working in his usual mode; this is a mixture of horror and fairy tale. It has a monster, but the monster is not the scariest part of the movie. It uses the monster as a lens to examine our humanity.
The Shape of Water stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute cleaning lady for a secret military lab in the middle of the cold war. The action kicks off when Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in a fish man from the amazon to study. While she forges a relationship with the creature, SHANNON tortures it mercilessly and plans to kill it and the Russians plot to steal the creature to stop the US from studying it. Aided by her coworker Zelda and neighbor Giles, and a little by a Russian spy, Elisa frees the creature and then must evade Stickland as he searches for the missing creature. I call it the creature, the credits call him, played by Doug Jones, as Amphibian Man, but he is clearly a take on the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The movie, narrated by Giles, is framed as a fairy tale. Elisa is the princess and the Amphibian man is the prince. There is so much more going on here, though. There is a heist, there is a spy thriller, a romance and a monster movie all going on at once. They all blend together into an unforgettable experience.
The plot is actually rather simple, it is the characters that really make this movie shine. Elisa is completely mute, but she doesn’t let that hinder her ability to communicate. It is clear why she would fall in love with the similarly mute creature, who as she signs in one pivotal scene doesn’t see how she is incomplete. He neighbor and friend Giles is a gay man who has been forced out of his work and has trouble making it in the oppressive time period. The same is true of Elisa’s friend Zelda, who is black. All of the “good guys” are minorities of some sort, trying to live their lives in a world titled against them. Then there is Strickland, who is in charge at the facility. Early in the movie he loses a couple of fingers. They are reattached, but as the movie goes along, they fester and die, turning black on his hand as the blackness of his soul is revealed. He has the perfect 50’s life, with the wife and kids and the good job, but he is completely unfulfilled. He is not just a monster, there is a clear character in there, but he is utterly selfish but thinks he is doing his best. The movie does an excellent job of starting him out as a conquering hero who subdued the monster, only to slowly show who the real monster is between those two. Then there is Michael Stuhlbarg’s Dr. Hoffstetler, who only wants to study the creature, but is largely powerless.
There are flights of fancy, this is at its heart a fairy tale. There are times in the movie that might lose people because of how obviously fake they are. But there is a story logic to all of it, it works in the scene even if it would not in real life. This is a movie that starts by expressly stating it is a fairy tale and it primarily about a fish man, there is a natural state of unreality to it all. If you can give yourself to the reality of the movie, it is one of the most amazing films of the decade.