A mute protagonist and her two sidekicks, a sassy black woman and a senior gay man save a monster from the clutches of the bad guys in The Shape of Water . The big bad villain in this case, is a Caucasian white man encapsulating all that’s wrong in the world. Cinematic excellence aside, if this premise isn’t art commenting on politics, then we’d have to be slapped in the face for it to be more noticeable. With his latest film, monster man Guillermo del Toro ( Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy ) subverts the fairytale romance genre into a sublime creature feature while becoming the voice for all disenfranchised groups.
- Director: Guillermo del Toro
- Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Octavia Spencer
- Story line: When a young woman falls in love with an amphibian creature, government officials will do everything to keep them apart
Del Toro’s silent heroine is Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who leads a very simple life, whose daily routine is eating eggs for dinner and masturbating as they boil. Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) has captured a creature, who Elisa befriends, fully intending to dissect him but not before deriving sadistic pleasure by torturing him with a cattle prod while he’s incapacitated. Elisa enlists the help of her two friends — Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins) — to rescue the creature before the powers that be get to him.
In inexperienced hands, The Shape of Water ’s inter-species romance would crumble, even becoming cringe-worthy. But del Toro’s monster never once looks hammy. The director’s oft-collaborator Doug Jones (who played the Faun and the Pale Man in Pan's Labyrinth ) brings life to the voiceless asset, using mere shrugs, shoulder drops and head-tilts to communicate. In the same vein is Hawkins — who’s stunned audiences with her disparate performance in Blue Jasmine — who like a chameleon becomes the character she plays. As the mute Elisa, her romance with the amphibian buds beautifully, going from curiosity to compassion, trepidation and then becoming full-blown true-blue love. Hawkins’ performance is spectacular, allowing the audience to enter Elisa’s soul with her smiles, subtle shift in expressions and body language. Of course without a worthy villain, this love story would have an ineffective conflict. And Shannon delivers in style, becoming the real monster of the film as the barbaric, cruel colonel who will do anything to succeed.
Despite clocking in at two hours, The Shape of Water is a tight effort. The period setting along with Dan Laustsen’s cinematography (including several underwater sequences) is simply breathtaking. Add to that Alexandre Desplat’s lilting soundtrack and it’s a wonderful sensorial experience. The star, however, is Del Toro’s direction that constrains your chest in anticipation of the inevitable and simultaneously also swells your heart, reiterating that love does transcend everything, and in this case even species. And like the shape of water, it is all around us when submerged in it.