There’s an old adage when it comes to filmmaking that sometimes you need to make one for them in order to make one for you. The idea is that creators often have to make a less personal and more commercial film that will earn the studio some money before they let them create something far more personal, and potentially less successful. But, that idea seems to have never been told to director Guillermo del Toro, because a look at his filmography shows off one of the most consistently unique and singularly personal bodies of work I’ve ever seen. I have no idea why del Toro is allowed to make every single one of his movies the weirdest and most unique thing that you’ll see each year, but I’m so happy he does. While his films are often not exactly commercially successful, they’ve remained some of my absolute favorite films of the year. And 2017 is no exception. I really can’t think of a del Toro film in recent memory that wasn’t one of my favorite films of the year, but this year we have something really special. Because his wonderful little slice of weirdness for this year is not only being lauded as one of the most enjoyable films of the year, but one of the legitimately best. And it’s about a woman falling in love with a literal monster from the depths of the Amazon. It doesn’t get any less weird the more you think about it.
The Shape of Water follows a woman named Elisa, as she works as a maid in a secure government research facility outside Baltimore. Elisa is mute, and lives a life of solitude. She spends her days either asleep of hanging out with her neighbor Giles, an older gay artist, and spends her night cleaning up the research facility with her best friend Zelda. It’s a relatively lonely life, but it works for Elisa. That is until something happens to really shake things up. Because one day the lab suddenly gets three new additions. Dr. Hoffstetler a new scientist, Colonel Richard Strickland a military man who has just returned from an expedition, and the Asset. Strickland found the Asset in the Amazon, a strange amphibious humanoid that they’ve decided to bring back to Baltimore in order to examine it. They hope to find some military applications of his body, and they stick him in a tank to begin examining him. Which is when Elisa comes into play. Because she and Zelda are tasked with cleaning the room that the Asset is stored in. She’s initially horrified at the Asset, since it ends up biting off two of Strickland’s fingers, but that fear turns to curiosity pretty quickly. She begins spending more and more time in the room with the Asset, and they start developing a sort of friendship. She brings him eggs, she teaches him some rudimentary sign-language, and they gradually start to form a real friendship.
Which is when Elisa decides that something extreme needs to be done. She needs to free the Asset from the lab and let it return to its life. So, she begins planning with Giles, and the two end up devising a plan. She and Giles will create a fake laundry truck and she’ll study the patterns of the lab, finding the perfect time to sneak the Asset out and into the truck. They’ll then bring it back to their apartments, keep him in a tub, and then let him flee from a dock during an upcoming rain storm. The day of the heist arrives, and Elisa finds a surprising ally. Turns out Dr. Hoffstetler is actually a Russian spy, and he’s been tasked with killing the Asset so the American’s can’t use it. But, he can’t bring himself to do it, so he helped Elisa sneak the Asset out. The heist doesn’t go great, but they do succeed in bringing the Asset home, and stick in in Elisa’s bathtub. They do have a couple of days before the tide is optimal for the Asset to escape though, so that’s a couple of days where they get to spend time together. And, gradually, that friendship becomes something more. She and the Asset start to fall in love with each other, and even find a way to make love. Which complicates the plan to let the Asset flee into the ocean. The Asset also befriends Giles, and even demonstrates a weird ability to cause regeneration in him, reversing some of his aging process. Plus, they run into another problem. Strickland is receiving a lot of stress about the Asset being stolen, and he’s been directed to find it and kill the people who stole it. He ends up finding out the truth about Hoffstetler, and that puts him on the path of Elisa. He arrives at Elisa and Giles’ apartment, but narrowly misses them. They finally bring the Asset to the dock, but right as they’re giving their tearful goodbyes Strickland arrives and shoots both the Asset and Elisa. Unfortunately for him, the Asset is able to use its regenerative ability, and heals itself before killing Strickland. But that leaves Elisa. The Asset ends up taking Elisa and diving into the ocean with her. He then uses his abilities to heal her, and even gives her a set of gills, letting them swim off together to lead a life.
When I first heard about this film, it sounded kind of ridiculous, but the sort of ridiculous that del Toro excels at. For years there’s been an idea that del Toro has wanted to make a Creature From the Black Lagoon remake, but it’s never gotten off the ground. He also was unable to create his third Hellboy film, much to his chagrin. So, he apparently took his passion for fish-creatures and just went for it. And he knocked it out of the park. This film is a truly magnificent experience. In true del Toro fashion the film is impeccably art directed, and the bizarre Gothic bent in his style works oddly perfectly with the early 1960’s time period. The effects in the film are also top notch, particularly the makeup used to create the Asset, which is then lovingly portrayed the the masterful Doug Jones. And he’s not alone, because every performance in this film is stellar. Sally Hawkins brings so much emotion and nuance to the role of Elisa, and the pain and joy the character feels throughout the film is so brilliantly conveyed. Michael Stulhbarg, Octavia Spencer, and Richard Jenkins are terrific as our secondary characters, bringing such life to what could be seen as minor rolls. And Michael Shannon is terrific as always, creating a truly monstrous villain in Strickland. It all comes together to create a visually sumptuous and emotionally powerful film that ends up affecting you far more than you’d ever expect a film about a woman falling in love with a fish-man to ever accomplish.
This may be due to the fact that even though the film has an absolutely outlandish premise, it manages to hit to some very universal themes. When Elisa is tasked with convincing Giles that they should help free the Asset, she tries to explain to him what the Asset means to her. She tells him that her whole life she’s felt incomplete. She’s mute, and unable to interact in the world the way that others are. She’s not normal. But he doesn’t see that. To him, she’s perfect. And he’s the first person who hasn’t looked at her with the preconceived notion that she isn’t a complete person. There’s no pity in his gaze, only compassion. And Elisa isn’t the only person who is feeling incomplete in her life. Because, just like real life, every other character seems to feel like something is missing in their life. Zelda complains about her deadbeat husband, and wishes for a more exciting and romantic life. Giles is a closeted gay man in a time where revealing his true self could easily result in his death, and on top of that his whole livelihood is built around commercial art, something that at the time was fading away. Hoffstetler is having to live a life that’s a complete lie, and has been forced into a role of a spy when all he really wants to do is learn more about the world. And even Strickland, the seemingly confident and idealized 60’s man wants more from the world. He’s unhappy in almost every aspect of his life, and just can’t find the right thing that will finally give him the happiness that he thinks he deserves so much. Because none of us have it figured out. We’re all incomplete, and we’re all striving to find the things that make us at least halfway there. That’s really all life is. A constant struggle to try and figure out who you are, and to feel like you’re yourself. Be you government agent, kindly maid, or mythological cryptoid. We’re all the same, and we’re all just trying to make sense of life.
The Shape of Water was written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, directed by Guillermo del Toro, and released by Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2017.
Categories: Reel Talk