By Elias Savada.
When Guillermo del Toro makes a film, people take notice. For me, these are delicious, often unsettling – and sensitive – events. Critics adore his unique skill and have grown accustomed to his stylish shadings; audiences may be put off by his films’ strangeness, a tendency to excite with explicit sexuality and violence, or his singular, absurdist brand of earthy reality. A master craftsman and expert story teller, the Mexican filmmaker has spun intoxicating tales which turn convention on its head. He has tackled themes of moral wickedness in magical worlds with such dark pieces of fantasy and gothic horror as Cronos, his first feature a quarter-century ago, The Devil’s Backbone (2001), and the incredible Pan’s Labyrinth, his 2006 anti-Franco fairy tale and still his top effort in my book. His latest visionary piece, written with Vanessa Taylor, follows in the mold of these phantasmagorical efforts, as opposed to his more mainstream action set pieces, such as his Hellboy films and the 2013 science fiction giant monster invasion tale Pacific Rim.
The Shape of Water is a stunning cinematic achievement that combines elements from an assortment of del Toro’s familiar genres, principally horror and fantasy, but with nods to romance (the tortured variety), old-time musicals, film noir, and 1960s Cold War spy thrillers. He mixes them up with amusement and wit, but perhaps some viewers will tire of the elongated extensions into various parts of his playful, sprawling tale.
Del Toro has a marvelous muse in his very award-worthy feature set in the early 1960s. And it’s not Ron Perlman, one of his regular go-to actors (Chronos, Hellboy, Blade II, Pacific Rim). He’s paired with acclaimed British actress Sally Hawkins, who has already had a banner year with the marvelous Maudie, director Aisling Walsh’s portrait of Canadian artist Maud Lewis. While her current role as Elisa Esposito did not require the physical contortions Hawkins used to effectively mimic the juvenile rheumatoid arthritis from which Lewis suffered, in Shape she’s an elven, mute cleaning woman in a secret government facility in Baltimore, where she has toiled for ten years with her affable co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Eliza’s a lonely soul with the heart of a lion and intense desires she releases with daily masturbatory episodes in her bathtub, a passionate motif that grows much stronger later in the film. She shares pie excursions with a down-on-his-luck neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an aging commercial artist whose career has floundered, because of his homosexual preferences. His fantasies are played out through the movie musicals that play on his home television. Giles is not a bold character (but finely played, like the entire cast); in fact, he seems scared of his own shadow, but he eventually shares the courage of his neighbor’s outlandish but very righteous convictions.
That principle is the core of the film. You might already be aware that the film is one of the strangest love stories ever told (which is how the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula was originally advertised). This is where del Toro’s fascination with the 1954 horror film Creature from the Black Lagoon intersects with the secret government program that provides the film’s ominous clouds of tyranny. That old Universal Pictures release revolved about a large amphibious humanoid creature that is part of the same animal group which now finds a singular male member of this species confiscated from its Amazonian home for “examination” by scientists on behalf of the American military, played to its full metal 1960s stereotypes.
In place of the pitchforks that forced their suspicions on the Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolfman films of yesteryear, the weapon of opportunity here is a nasty electric cattle prod wielded by Richard Strickland, the square-jawed security expert played with sadistic darkness by the perfectly cast Michael Shannon. He likes his other-worldly prisoner screaming in agony and his sex as quiet as a dead mouse. While the creature – Spoiler alert! – manages to rip off two of Strickland’s fingers, that only galvanizes his hatred for the beast. When those digits are reattached, the resulting graft takes on its own putridness, externalizing the heartlessness of this Frankenstein monster.
As for the constantly chittering Amphibian Man, del Toro opted for his featured creature man, Doug Jones, who brought Faun and Pale Man to exuberant life in Pan’s Labyrinth and was the endearing Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films. He fashions a marvel of cinematic imagination in a role that balances easygoing intelligence, painful sadness, and deep compassion with an exterior of slimy luminescence; huge, blinking fish eyes; and an appetite for hard boiled eggs and Big Band music.
The production design (Paul Denham Austerberry) and cinematographer (Dan Laustsen (a collaborator with del Toro on Mimic and Crimson Peak) are mesmerizing. Every scene seems right to the times, whether it’s the building where the government is securing is secret asset or the dilapidated apartments where Elisa and Gilles live, atop a grand old movie theater (This week’s feature: The Story of Ruth).
As the film’s grand scale passion and side stories race toward a bathroom-flooded and rain-soaked climax, you have to admire del Toro for pressing full bore into his make-believe world with such nightmarish whimsy. The embittered, black Cold War coal he collects in The Shape of Water is somehow crushed into a diamond of a film.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).