It was reported not long ago that Guillermo Del Toro was approached by Universal to Shepard their Dark Universe which would revive their staple of monsters from the 1930s and 40s. Del Toro declined to pursue this film, The Shape of Water, despite being a fan of the Universal Monster movies. Earlier this year Universal released their first attempt with The Mummy, which was a loud and confused action film that paid very little attention to its roots. The Shape of Water is a film that perhaps isn’t a horror film but its roots clearly lie in the films of The Creature of the Black Lagoon and represent a pure and thoughtful monster movie that is rich with fantasy and romance. The Shape of Water is Del Toro’s best film since his masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth.
(Mild Spoilers Ahead)
Much like Pan’s Labyrinth, this fairy tale is a period piece. Set during the Cold War, the era informs the film’s story and themes. The Shape of Water follows a mute woman named Eliza who works at a government facility as a janitor. She is a woman of routine. She wakes up, hard boils her eggs, takes a bath, masturbates, and goes off to work where she meets up with her friend Zelda. Eliza lives next door to her best friend, Giles, an artist and closeted gay man; together they watch films on TV and live above a grand theater. One day the CIA brings in a creature they discovered in South America. Slowly Eliza grows attached to the creature and springs a plan to escape the creature.
The film is set just on the onset of the civil rights movement and pre-Stonewall days. The Vietnam War has not yet commenced and the Space Race was about to begin. Pan’s Labyrinth was as much about a princess returning to her Kingdom as it was about the Spanish Civil War. The Shape of Water is, at its core, a fairy tale but beneath that, is a tale that is about the era in which it is placed. The monster is “the other”, the heroes of the story are “the others”; these are all characters disadvantaged by their time period. Del Toro already crafts an imaginative fairy tale that becomes deeper by playing into the social themes of the era. This isn’t just a surface choice by Del Toro, this is deliberate and calculated, both the story and characters work in tandem with both the fairy tale and the social times and therefore become richer for it.
Fantasy films and fairy tale films are far and few between; quality ones less so. Del Toro has proven in the past to be absolutely masterful at the genre and here Del Toro is able to balance whimsical surreal nature and realism. The world that Del Toro creates is our world but sometimes it isn’t. The production design is gorgeous, it reminded me of a mix of Universal’s films and even the masterpiece video game Bioshock.
The creature dubbed Amphibian Man comes to life through a combination of incredible costuming and practical effects work. Playing the creature is Doug Jones. Through this combination of practical effects and actor’s performance, Del Toro has given cinema a monster that will most likely stand the test of time. The design is memorable, Amphibian Man is fierce, threatening and tender, Jones deftly balances the humanity and animalistic qualities of the character to create a richly complex monster.
Opposite Jones is actress Sally Hawkins playing the mute woman Eliza. This is one of the best performances of the year. With almost no spoken dialogue Hawkins delivers a performance that is daring and full of emotion. Not only is most of her performance visual but she has to be convincing behind the scenes with Jones which is not an easy task.
Playing alongside them is Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer. Spencer delivers strong supporting work as well as she has in films like Hidden Figures while Tamber also delivers some of the best work of his career. Tamber’s character, Giles, plays his character’s struggles just beneath the surface. Tamber never reveals his emotions by saying it and is wisely restrained. This quiet pain makes Giles an even more endearing character.
Playing the foil to our heroes is Michael Shannon. Shannon has shown time and time again he can play an excellent villain from General Zod in Man of Steel to Rick Carver in 99 Homes. Once again Shannon demonstrates why he is so good at playing villains here with his character Richard Strickland. Shannon is more reserved than he typically plays his villainous roles but he is none the less perhaps even more hateful than he has been previously. Throughout the movie, Shannon will have you crawling and shivering in your skin through just a look of his eyes. Shannon is able to convey raw anger and hatred brimming just beneath the surface, waiting to be released, so brilliantly. He is truly a great villain.
Oscar season is upon us where it seems week after week we get treated to a great movie. The Shape of Water is no exception, this is a great film. Del Toro has managed to craft one of his finest movies and most moving stories of his accomplished career. This is also one of the best fantasy films and one of the best monster movies to be released in recent years. This is sure to be a force come time for Oscars and The Shape of Water deserves all the praise that comes its way.