I regard Guillermo del Toro as one of the most (if not the) most esteemed genre filmmakers of the 21st century. His ability to tell enrapturing tales about life, love, and loss through fantastical and sometimes frightening vehicles, is unparalleled. Whether motivated by ghoulish red ghosts in Crimson Peak, a frightening Faun in Pans Labyrinth, or a sighing spectre in The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro has always been able to find humanity in the darkest of places. And as inevitable for someone so innately talented; his use of the fringe has gone mainstream in creature-feature turned romance The Shape of Water, and I couldn’t be more ecstatic.
The film follows melancholic Eliza (Sally Hawkins), who navigates a nocturnal existence in cold-war era Baltimore. Eliza is mute, though her day-to-day life is filled with the colorful voices of her closest confidants; her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Though Eliza cannot speak, no one speaks for her. Throughout the film her range and depth of emotion floods* the film (*water puns=1), pushing us through this quirky, romantic adventure.
Eliza and Zelda work as night maids for a highly classified government research facility. Until the creature swims* into her life (*water puns=2), Eliza lives a pretty mundane existence. Her morning ritual; a short, exhilarating bath, boiled eggs, a quiet bus-ride through the city, a repetitive night’s work, serves as enough motivation for Eliza when an amphibian appears one day at the facility.
The Creature, portrayed by frequent del Toro Collaborator, Doug Jones, is the latest catch of government official Strickland (Michael Shannon), who serves as the film’s main antagonist and creepiest monologuer. Very quickly, through Eliza‘s brazen attempts to socialize, we learn the Creature to be an intelligent being, worthy of some ‘dolphin-safe tuna‘ treatment. Through lunchtime meetings in secret, Eliza and the Creature bond over boiled eggs, music, and a general distaste for the government goons keeping him chained.
It isn’t long until our Romeo and Juliette tale turns bank heist after Eliza learns of facility’s sinister plot. Not able to conclude whether the creature is a weapon, asset, or both – General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) ultimately decides housing such a being is too much of a risk for when the Soviets come knocking. With the aid of surprise good-guy Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and her chatty chums, Eliza busts the merman of her dreams* out of the facility. (*water puns=3)
Though this romance takes a road familiarly traveled, this film isn’t about wowing us with a mysterious and twisting story arc. Audiences know very well they are in for a fishy romance before the titles role. But it is how this story rolls out; with its sweeping, (swimming?) grandiose camera movements, quirky Parisienne score, and old Hollywood showbiz glitz, that The Shape of Water takes us both somewhere nostalgic and unfamiliar.
Time and time again, del Toro has proven that the secret ingredient lurking in the fold of his fantastical films is the breath of life each and every character receives, no matter the quantity of their speaking parts. It is the divergent storytelling of these sideline characters; ranging from tiny nuances, ticks, quirks – to grand, melancholic motivations and glimmering glimpses of goals, that ultimately elevates the core story. Never detracting from it. Each character is given legs for which to leap out from the pages of the screenplay; the opportunity to capture the audience – even if only for a brief and glittering moment.
I have many more thoughts on The Shape of Water, but unfortunately you are going to have to sit tight until Thursday’s episode of Nightmare on Film Street Podcast, where Jon and I will dive* into the film (*water puns=4) at length.
The Shape of Water had a limited theatrical opening this past Friday, December 8th after very select screenings December 1st In New York city.