The Critic’s Corner
February 12-18, 2018
By David Laprad
There’s a brief scene in “The Shape of Water,” a fantasy drama from filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, that has the potential to turn viewers off for good. I’m not going to describe it because you’d snort and turn the page, vowing to never see the film. And that would be a shame because you’d miss a movie that was beautifully made on every level.
“The Shape of Water” is one of del Toro’s art films, which he sometimes makes between commercial projects like “Hellboy” and “Pacific Rim.” Set in Baltimore in 1962, the story follows a mute custodian at a high-security government laboratory who forms a close bond with a captured amphibian creature. If you’ve seen “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “The Devil’s Backbone,” then you know which version of del Toro made “The Shape of Water.”
The film works as pure entertainment – to a point. The scenes in which Elisa, the mute custodian, discovers and befriends the creature are as sweet and innocent as an old movie. Although Elisa has never been able to speak due to an injury she sustained as an infant, she’s good at using sign language and her facial expressions to get her point across. The creature, which has become accustomed to screaming and brute physical treatment, responds to Elisa’s kindness and accepts her as a friend.
Col. Richard Strickland is the man behind the screaming and brute physical treatment. Cast in the role of foil, Strickland wields a cattle prod like it’s an extra limb and treats anyone who’s not in authority above him with disdain.
Strickland wants to gut the creature like a Thanksgiving turkey and see what makes it tick. The lead scientist on the project wants to study but not kill it. Elisa wants to save it and hatches a rescue plan.
Once the creature is safely marinating in a salt bath in Elisa’s tub, “The Shape of Water” dives deeper into the cool waters of fantasy. There, del Toro allows his imagination to swim free, conjuring scenes that will test the resolve of viewers who simply wanted to consume a bucket of popcorn and take in a stock creature feature.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what del Toro, who wrote and directed “The Shape of Water,” had in mind. Instead, he made a thoughtful movie about how the misfits, rejects and, as Strickland says through a derisive sneer, “piss wipers” of the world are the more human of us.
In del Toro’s fictional worlds, the monsters often embody the finer qualities of humankind, while he’s frequently painted the humans as monstrous. Yet the creatures are feared and scorned because they’re different.
The theme of rejection is evident in the film’s narrator, Giles. An artist who lost his job with an ad agency due to his alcoholism and homosexuality, he spends his days creating paintings no one will want to see and wallowing in his aging, balding misery. Elisa and his cats are the only bright spots in his existence. As told by him, it’s no wonder “The Shape of Water” is drenched in rain – or rather, tears.
Although Elisa is the central protagonist in the film, del Toro reveals his motivations most clearly through Giles, who’s a paragon of acceptance. When the creature consumes one of his cats, he’s upset but looks beyond the loss to say, “He can’t help who he is.”
Giles is critical in one other way: as the narrator, he allows del Toro to say, “Once upon a time...” Setting the film during the 1960s Cold War era allowed del Toro to explore issues we face today without focusing on the circumstances that surround them.
Setting “The Shape of Water” in the past also gave del Toro a canvas for making one of his most visually pleasing films to date. “The Shape of Water” is filled with old TVs, cars, buildings and technologies, among other ancient things. There are even Russian spies in fedoras and overcoats and a theater that’s playing “Cleopatra.”
But nothing looks like a film prop; rather, Elisa’s apartment and everything that surrounds it has a weathered, lived in look, like del Toro transported his crew and equipment back in time and made the movie in 1960s Baltimore.
Del Toro and his cinematographer, Dan Laustsen, bathe this world in gorgeous but gloomy blues and greens, as though it’s on the verge of rusting. Like the characters in the movie, the world is imperfect but lovely.
The performances, however, are impeccable. While the entire cast delivered good work, Sally Hawkins is extraordinary as Elisa. With no dialog to speak, Hawkins was forced to convey all of Elisa’s joy, wonder, sadness, fear – everything she feels – through her expressions and mannerisms.
And it is a deep and engaging performance. Elisa’s face serves not only as the light that projects her heart to others but also as the mirror in which others can see themselves. Seeing itself as beautiful and not fearsome, the creature softens and accepts Elisa as a friend.
The creature work is good as well. With the facial features of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and the chiseled abs of “Magic Mike,” the leading man of “The Shape of Water” is not a special effect or a computer animated wonder; instead, he’s latex, rubber and an actor masquerading convincingly as something fantastical.
The seamless nature of the body suit and actor Doug Jones’ performance within it helped me to suspend any disbelief I had early on so that by the time Elisa and her unnamed friend begin to explore territory previously reserved for “The Beauty and the Beast,” the film didn’t lose me. I’m glad it didn’t because if it had, I would have missed the thematically and emotionally rich climax, which is as tragic and magical as anything del Toro has crafted.
Perhaps you’re thinking you’ve figured out the scene I believe will throw people off. But you haven’t because I didn’t touch on it. That said, it doesn’t matter what it shows. Whether it perfectly fits what’s happening or temporarily throws the movie off the rails, it’s just one moment in a two-hour film that blends art and entertainment in a rare and exceptional way. I hope you don’t miss it.
Rating: See it now. Rated R for sexual content, nudity, violence and language.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.