How did this movie get made?
Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a gonzo genre mashup of monster movie, heist thriller, and romantic fairy tale. The romance at its core is between a mute woman and a man-fish creature. It is also a modestly budgeted, self-contained film, in a cinematic landscape increasingly being taken up by sequels with budgets rivalling the GDP of a small country.
It’s a miracle, pure and simple.
Set at the height of Cold War paranoia in the 1960s, the film follows Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins,) a mute cleaner at a secretive government facility that has just acquired a new asset. After Eliza discovers that the acquisition is a humanoid fish creature (Doug Jones) from the Amazon, she begins to bond with it over boiled eggs and jazz music, and eventually plots its escape. As both America and Russia circle the creature, aiming to exploit it for an advantage in the space race, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the cruel, domineering overseer of the laboratory, makes it his mission to destroy it.
To get it out of the way first, the aesthetic of the film is gorgeous. While meticulous in its compositions and design, it never feels cold, sterile or forced. There is a visceral, tactile feel to the world that sucks you right in. The production design has a lived in, organic quality, using distinctly 60s props and locations while adding heightened, fantastical elements. Luminous lighting floods the screen with atmospheric blues, greens, yellows and blacks. The camera glides through every frame with a sense of purpose and flow while always being motivated by a subject. The design of the scaly, doe-eyed creature—coming from the monster-obsessed director of films like Pans Labyrinth (2006), Pacific Rim (2013), and Crimson Peak (2015)—is believable and lovingly detailed. This movie makes a $20 million budget look like at least $60 million.
An adult fairy tale through and through, The Shape of Water doesn’t skimp on sex or violence; both the romantic and thriller plot-lines are pretty audacious in their maturity. It also doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable aspects of the era, from its deep-seated homophobia and casual racism to its suffocating workplace sexism. Eliza’s two friends and accomplices in the creature’s escape attempt are a black fellow cleaner, and her closeted artist neighbor, played by Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins respectively, both of whom suffer in this environment. The film’s most incisive takedown comes with its depiction of toxic masculinity in Richard Strickland.
Michael Shannon plays this role to perfection. A government worker with more than a hint of self-righteousness, Strickland despises the creature, regularly tortures it, and wants nothing more than to take it apart. He’s the sort of character that, in the classic monster movies this is riffing on, would often be heroic, but is explored here to reveal its grotesque undertones. He’s a man who desperately wants the quintessential American life—the nice car, the family, his boss’s approval—to give his hollow life some purpose, and falls into a deep rage when it fails him. Shannon’s darkness and intensity in the role is similar to many of his performances, but is put to perhaps it’s best use here. Strickland is casually creepy and oily, with an innate desire for control and power, in a way that he would never be self-aware about. He’s a frighteningly familiar character to certain powerful men of today. Once his internal rot starts to become disgustingly external, it becomes clear who the real monster is.
The script, cowritten by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, also doesn’t make a misstep with its love story. Sally Hawkins has an effervescent presence as Eliza, capturing an endearing sense of whimsy and joy while saying barely a word. Eliza is not a repressed, pure silent girl who is ‘awakened’ or forced by the creature. She has her own desires, as the film frankly establishes early on, and she loves the creature because it sees her as equal. Doug Jones, decked out in a full body suit aided by imperceptible CGI, gives his creature enough depth to seem like an equal partner, conveying grace and new found, wide-eyed tenderness. Their connection is captured through visuals and sounds rather than words, which makes every sound, touch and look between the two matter.
Del Toro’s passion for cinema and this story practically gushes through the screen. There aren’t many other directors as completely sincere and big hearted as him (watch any of his interviews to see how adorable this man is). Here, in The Shape of Water, he has created a delightfully weird and achingly beautiful film, that feels like a much-needed antidote to our cynical, miserable times.
The Shape of Water is in cinemas now.