It’s always fun to look back at the roots of classic fairy tales to find that so many of them, prior to being diluted for mass consumption by children, were extremely dark — extremely adult. Death, sex, physical mutilation, you name it. Take a dip into The Little Mermaid and you’ll find that it’s much closer to The Lure than it is to, well, The Little Mermaid. Remember Jiminy Cricket? Well in the original text of Pinocchio, the titular puppet kills him and is then hanged to death while Gepetto rots in jail on charges of child abuse. So no, fairy tales weren’t always child-friendly, at least by modern sensibilities, but over time they’ve become safe, fun entertainment for the youngins amongst us. So much so that the phrase “fairy tale ending” is used to describe a story that wraps up happily and nicely. Speaking of happy endings, Mulan originally comes home from war to find her family in such tatters that she kills herself.
Guillermo del Toro has always had a foot in the door of both types of fairy tales, the dark, unfriendly ones, as well as the whimsical ones, and while he’s walked this line for his entire career, choosing sometimes to lean a little more one way or the other, it wasn’t until The Shape of Water that he has truly nailed the balance of tones. This is a fairy tale for adults, complete with as much whimsy as there is grotesqueness, all employed to showcase an unconventional romance in a world where it is clear that while cynicism may dominate, cynics are given the worst punishment of all — they’re uninteresting.
The film opens with narration by Giles (Richard Jenkins), the neighbor and best friend to Elisa, our protagonist. He notes that in telling this story, neither the time nor the place are of much import, but the best I can figure is that it’s about 1962, and it’s in Baltimore (convincingly played by Toronto). Giles is right though, none of this matters. He and Elisa have bonded over being outcasts. He’s a homosexual, and she’s a mute.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) spends her days working on the cleaning crew of a Cold War era, steampunk-but-not laboratory. She and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are barely considered people by the men working around them, and as such, their presence only registers if they are in the way, or if their services are needed. Naturally, when the lab acquires a new specimen, a Creature From The Black Lagoon inspired humanoid (Doug Jones, because of course), the messes begin to pile up, and it’s up to Elisa and Zelda to keep it clean.
In charge of keeping the creature in check are the aptly named Strickland (Michael Shannon) and a team of scientists led by Dr. Robert Hofstetter (an excellent Michael Stuhlbarg). Strickland, of course, wants to assert dominance over the creature and is pressing for vivisection, while Hofstetter is being pulled in opposite directions by his mysterious superiors and his own moral compass. Meanwhile, Elisa and the creature begin to form a secret bond, and when it becomes clear that there’s an expiration date being placed on the creature by Strickland, an escape must be mounted.
And I’ll stop there, but there’s so so so so so so much more.
The look of The Shape of Water could best be described with a term I used earlier: ‘Steampunk-but-not.’ Much of del Toro’s work falls into this category and I suspect it has a lot to do with why his films capture the imagination in such a stark way. Generally, the fun of steampunk design is the Rube Goldbergian nature of the technology. Sure, the functionality of it all doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, but it makes sense, and only when this style is abused or under-thought does the house of cards fall. Del Toro takes a few steps back from full-on steampunk and uses just the feeeeel of it to create a retro laboratory, and a willingness in the audience to not question the particulars (this is also helped by the aforementioned opening voiceover). This is not a film about plot, but rather about character.
Sally Hawkins does wonders with Elisa. It’s a fully silent performance which requires all of the acting to be done through strong facial work. This is doubly impressive given that she’s playing opposite an amphibious creature, also without the gift of speech. There are moments where sign language is used, complete with subtitles, but this never serves to soften the thematic use of their communicatory limitations. It’s important that her muteness not become a novelty. It never does. Whether she’s sharing hard-boiled eggs with the creature, or listening to “my husband” stories from Zelda, Hawkins builds her character from so deep inside that she’s able to keep her performance realistically small and infinitely more engaging than if someone had AAAAAAACTED it. The growth of Elisa’s friendship with the creature is a tough sell, and unspools at a much different pace than the marketing materials would have you believe, but I bought it hook, line, and sinker. Yes, that was a fish pun.
Michael Shannon, the best villain in the biz, plays a real snake here. I mean, duh, his name is Strickland. Never trust a cinematic Strickland. He’s a typical fairy tale villain in that much of his evil is surface level, but it fits the material. Especially in the ways that the film comments on power abuse in the workplace, in the family, and between genders. He is THE picture of toxic masculinity, and the story slowly strips him of the things that the toxic male finds strength in. He loses fingers. He gets rejected in his sexual advances. His car is destroyed. His boss is constantly playing power moves against him. He even carries around a modified cattle prod which he refers to as a dingus. He’s not just well aware of the phallic nature of his weaponry, he’s proud of it.
He also refers to it as an “Alabama Howdydoo.” I include that in this review solely because I repeated the phrase in my head throughout the entire film so I wouldn’t forget it.
Giles, much like Elisa, Zelda, and the creature, also runs into structural abuses at the hands of his “disability.” That’s not the correct term of course, but as a homosexual in the early 60s, he is very much considered to be “less than.” Yet, throughout the movie he is one of the few males which represent what being a man should look like. He works hard. He’s humble. And even though we only get a small window into his past (one which is as filled with tragic mistakes as it is with reasons to make them, it seems), we get the sense that he’s the type of guy to constantly push himself toward growth. It’s a model that everyone should follow.
Thematically, The Shape of Water scratches a similar itch as Okja did earlier this year. In fact, a lot of movies this year made efforts to explore the way power structures can be used and abused. More specifically, however, both Water and Okja were very interested in the mutual non-exclusivity of morals and ethics. Ethics don’t mean shit without morals, and morals don’t mean shit without ethics. METHODS MATTER, EVEN WHEN YOU’RE RIGHT.
A lot of talk in The Shape of Water is about the future. I mean “the future” in that magical Tomorrowland sense, where we assume that the acquisition and application of knowledge and technology will be employed for the betterment of humankind and the world we inhabit. But the question is posed of just who is deserving of this future. Can we learn more by chopping up a merman and looking at his insides, or by studying him in his natural habitat? While building anything on a bed made of cruelty and suffering is almost always a short term success, is it truly worth calling a success? Do we deserve the spoils of such practices?
Science requires a heart, and the heart, in turn, requires knowledge.
The Shape of Water has its own cruelties too. As I said before, this is very much an adult fairy tale. There is sex, violence, nudity, and a litany of deeply grotesque moments, both explicit and implicit, yet it’s never at the expense of the magic. This is a film that loves its audience and its characters, and it’s made by a filmmaking team that loves movies.
The score by Alexandre Desplat has a rich singsong quality that is matched by the lens of Adam Laustsen in its ability to jump from playful to grimy to magical with nary a stumble. The audiovisual components of Water are appropriate in that they function similarly to the titular element. There is no tangible shape to them, but if you open up, you will be surrounded by them (you won’t be suffocated, don’t worry).
I must also drop just a few words about the creature. Doug Jones fully embodies this creation, because of course he does. And while I suspect that some of the monster is enhanced by effects in post, it is very much a “man in a suit,” which is important when using a design referential to the monster flicks of early Hollywood. It is, without a doubt, the best looking rubber suited monster in film history, bolstered by a performer who can elicit humanity from under even the thickest of extra skins.
Earlier this year I praised Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness for successfully hearkening back to the James Whale era of studio horror, and I must praise The Shape of Water for sourcing similar influences just as successfully, but with a slightly softer brush. Whereas the former is more interested in having the audience fight the metaphorical tiger, the latter invites us to dance with it.
For example, when the film is about to make its third act transition there is an artistic flourish that literally took my breath away and moved me to tears. It would feel out of place in a thriller, but within a fairy tale it feels, as Goldilocks would say, just right. This moment proves to be a bold choice stylistically, but the gamble pays off HUGE. I’d rather not get into specifics, as I feel it’s important to maintain the confident fluidity with which the film takes this quick dalliance into a very heightened style, but know that I’m exactly the type of viewer to resist such a thing, and I couldn’t muster up the strength to do anything but cry. It’s probably my favorite moment in any film this year, and I just want to hug Guillermo del Toro for pulling the trigger on it. While I do find it odd that so many critics are saying that del Toro is “back” as if Crimson Peak wasn’t stellar, I will agree with the notion insofar as I think that with The Shape of Water, one of our greatest storytellers has made his masterpiece.
The Shape of Water opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.