On shades of green, shapes of water, physical expression, and a fairy-tale sum not quite equal to its fairy-tale parts
The Shape of Water Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Nick Searcy
Rated R / 2 hours, 3 minutes / 1.85:1
(out of four)
The Shape of Water is the movie Guillermo del Toro has been building toward his whole career. The peculiar, discarded outsiders; the hidden monsters; the magic or romance or terror (if not all three) that emerges from their cohabitation; the clear-eyed moral conscience channeled through a famed period of political struggle, its retrospective enlightenment put toward broad humanist conclusions.
But for something that feels like it was 25 years in the making, you'd think it could have spared a bit more time to let itself breathe. It's not that it's an especially short movie - technically it clocks in as the second-longest of del Toro's career - but that it doesn't seem to get much below the (considerably beautiful) surface of its ideas or, more crucially, its relationships. It's an enchanting movie from a filmmaker I love, but it's more a sampling of tasty appetizers than a full meal.
Del Toro glides almost too effortlessly through the story of a mute woman who bonds with a Creature from the Black Lagoon-like amphibious creature being held in a government lab where she works, ignored and disregarded, as a cleaning woman. Her goal: Escape. Rescue, rather. In her way - aside from the institutional apparatus that has every motivation to protect its prized commodity - is the dead-eyed, joylessly cruel colonel overseeing the creature's stay. By her side: her gay best friend and confidante - they live in neighboring apartments above a movie theatre - with whom she shares, at a distance, an affinity for the magical and romantic possibilities of life. (Or dreams, anyway.) Finally: her co-worker, the voice of reason, who has the wisdom to warn against any kind of rescue mission ... and the decency to help pull it off when Elisa (Sally Hawkins) goes forward with it anyway.
And hovering around them is the time and place - Cold War America in the middle of the Space Race - that is unkind, even hostile, to them all.
But it all revolves around the relationship between Elisa and what/who is commonly referred to as "the asset" (played by del Toro's ever-reliable creature muse Doug Jones, the Andy Serkis of prosthetics), and it's that relationship that ebbs wildly between weakness and strength. They are first acquainted when he, off-screen, bites a pair of fingers off of his captor Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), instantly endearing himself to Elisa without him even knowing it. Love at first bite. She's tasked with cleaning up the mess in the lab (locating the severed fingers in the process), and takes the opportunity to get a better look at her fellow outcast and future lover. They bond in their shared but separate solitude - over jazz music and hard-boiled eggs - as Elisa hatches an escape plan.
We see this relationship unfold in two distinct parts - first, in stolen moments and lunch breaks in the lab, the blooming of their romance; and later, its physical consummation, after the rescue. (This is not a spoiler. Everything in the movie very openly leads to, and then results from, the rescue.) But del Toro is never quite able to crack the former - the building of the connection between woman and creature. Here, his considerable imagination fails him. Aside from a few small gestures between the two - including some rudimentary sign language - he never finds a way for any romance or chemistry or bond to take hold. So he settles for a montage in lieu of actual development. It plays like a trailer for a more fully developed relationship. In fact, what we get is not much more than what the actual trailer for the film already showed us.
By the time they're physically together, they're meant to be deeply attached to each other already. Instead it seems as if they've only just met. That the anguished, carnal direction the relationship goes in the film's back half is so much more emotionally resonant than its build-up (and funnier, and more thrilling) is a testament to del Toro's skill as an image-maker and his ability to convey meaning through physicality - its shapes, movements, wounds, wonders and imperfections, and all that those externalities can reveal or withhold. But as marvelous as the pivotal sex scene is as a standalone centerpiece, it's not the payoff it's intended to be.
Broadly, this is a problem that follows the movie throughout - great pieces that aren't supported by enough connective tissue to make it land with as much power as we feel it should, or as it wants to. Great pieces like the introductory scene, in which the camera floats underwater through Elisa's dreamily flooded apartment - with her in it, asleep - as Jenkins' character (an artist who makes a feeble freelance living in advertising) begins to narrate her story as if recounting a fairy tale. (Or at least one he chooses to remember in fairy-tale terms.)
While the narrative isn't always fleshed out, it's populated by several really terrific, if perhaps a bit too concise, character portraits. (Although with six actors this great - Hawkins, Shannon, Spencer, Jenkins, Jones, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a compassionate Russian scientist operating undercover at the American lab - it would be hard not to get quite a bit out of the characters regardless.) Still largely unsung outside of cinephile circles, Hawkins is unsurprisingly extraordinary in the lead role - the soft intensity in her eyes (whether she's observing, listening, or actively communicating) and even the slightest twitch, tremble or wrinkle in her expression communicating whole monologues' worth. During the movie, her friends translate her sign language for others, or we get occasional subtitles - but we genuinely don't need either. She makes everything clear all by herself.
Elisa is invisible to most of the people around her, but she's neither docile nor repressed; indeed her every morning begins with a vigorous round of masturbation (which tells us that, while she may be a bit lonely, she's certainly not inhibited). She takes her time, too - so much that she arrives to work a few minutes late almost every morning, despite the variety of clocks and timers that otherwise organize her days. She is self-possessed, utterly confident in what she communicates and how, and not for one second is she intimidated by Strickland.
As for him, he's not so much a megalomaniac as one who aspires to be a megalomaniac - or rather believes he should be, except he's too weak to be. Or can't bring himself to care. He only exhibits power over anyone when it's ostensibly easy (a shackled creature, a disabled underling). He has to neurotically motivate himself in the bathroom mirror when he's on the job; he buys a car as a status symbol and is railroaded into getting the one color he doesn't want; he can't stand up to his own superiors, and his career has seemingly plateaued at the top-secret military equivalent of middle management. When his horny, sexually aggressive wife greets him after a long day at work, he climbs on top of her and rotely gives it to her in what we imagine is the only position he would ever imagine attempting. Less a tyrant than a self-loathing weakling sensitive mostly to slights to his ego or status, Strickland is an easy adversary but an effective one.
Del Toro doesn't just let his characters' various roles and purposes speak for themselves, but rather memorably uses color to guide them. Specifically, the color green, which dominates almost every aspect of Paul Austerberry's production design and is deftly deployed to govern the contrasting states of mind of this fairy tale's hero and its villain. For Strickland, the color traps him, disgusts him, haunts and taunts him. It is a madness and a sickness; he's practically allergic. For Elisa, it's her freedom, pulling her into where she has always belonged. It's that sense of belonging that is The Shape of Water's ultimate goal - of finding someone with whom communication is no obstacle, in a place seemingly custom-designed for the both of you. The film begins and ends submerged in water, and in between is a journey to arrive there. To be an outcast no longer.