It was the one word that echoed in my mind during the entirety of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water. The camera moves, the acting, the production design. Every step is the step of an assured, powerful, and truly confident director.
I felt like I was watching Vertigo or Notorious. Lawrence of Arabia. I have no doubt there was turmoil. Arrays of last minute decisions and little concessions to translate images from dream to reality. There always are, but if so, there was no indication of that on screen. Everything just…works.
I’ve always had an odd relationship with GDT. I remember seeing Mimic when it came out and being fairly enthralled, especially with the monster effects. But as a huge fan of Norrington’s original Blade, I hated Blade II. The oversaturated browns and oranges didn’t work for me, the fight scenes were…fine, but most of the emotional throughline was in the story of the vampire prince, not Blade, and that drove me nuts. Why make a Blade movie where the evil vampire is the sympathetic hero?
Years later, it all makes sense. Del Toro loves the monster.
The Shape of Water tells the story of an orphaned mute girl named Eliza who lives alone, working as a custodian at a research lab in the 1960s. Apart from her friend Zelda (a brilliant Octavia Spencer) and her closeted neighbor Giles (American treasure Richard Jenkins), she keeps to herself, content to enjoy old movies and beautiful shoes. But at night she sleeps on her couch and dreams of water, and lays her head against the rain-streaked window of the bus she takes to work to sink into the womblike hum. Then a new experiment moves in. Curious, she lingers a bit too long in the corridor, sees a bit too much, and slowly falls in love with the monster–a creature from the black lagoon brought to life by the incomparable Doug Jones–the hardest working man in a rubber suit that Hollywood has ever seen.
From Cronos to The Shape of Water, all of GDT’s films have toyed the idea that the real monsters are people. Often powerful people, bureaucrats and the like, but everyday people too. Here that’s Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland–a man in black assigned to capture the monster and bring it in. His career is riding on this project, and he feels ready to earn his due for his years of faithful service. He says often that he “delivers,” while munching hard candy and reading self-help books. The monster is his gateway to that bright future of Cadillacs and a government pension, but they hate each other, and he tortures the creature with glee until he loses a few fingers for his trouble. The payoff to that storyline is one of the most gag-inducing cinema moments I’ve ever experienced, and that’s saying something for a horror fan.
Strickland hints that the monster is worshipped as a god in the jungle, and laughs off the implications of that statement far too soon. At first Eliza is the only one to consider the monster’s wants, but eventually a scientist with a cold war era twist (Michael Stuhlbarg) starts to see the monster the way she does, and pushes for its fair treatment. Eventually, Eliza decides that she will help the creature escape, no matter the personal cost. Risk leads to love, and then, in typical GDT fashion, to worlds unknown.
In Del Toro’s worlds, every monster is Frankenstein’s monster–a beautiful soul trapped in a grotesque form, beset upon by those who want to kill it because it’s different or difficult. But it’s in The Shape of Water that this idea perhaps finds its most perfect expression.
Like James Cameron, who has been reworking and refining his perfect version of the film love story (Terminator, True Lies, Titanic, Avatar, Aliens) for his entire career, Del Toro reaches the summit of his beautiful monster concept in Shape. And he does it through love. Real, articulated, sensual love between a woman and a grotesque. We watch the lovers go through the typical motions (to a resplendent Desplat soundtrack, no less–one that had me thinking about Amelie more than I have in a decade): curiosity, first moves, bonding over music and hard boiled eggs, and then consummation. It stays grounded in the common language of romantic cinema, buoyed by brilliant performances from Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones. It’s easy to see the depth and quality of an actor if you take away some of their tools, and they both shine as a result.
For me, Del Toro has always struggled with tonal consistency. His films play with complicated ideas and themes, but also go for surprising gags and goofs, usually involving Ron Perlman. I’ve begun to accept that this is just part of Del Toro himself. His films are presented as pure expressions of the things he loves, flaws and all. He dares us to accept him for who and what he is–just as he asks his audience to root for his ghosts, his demonic Hellboys, his fish creatures.
Perhaps this is because Del Toro already believes what most of us refuse to accept: we are all the monster. But we don’t have to be the ugly, selfish kind. If we can embrace our true selves–the weird, beautiful parts that we keep chained in our own dark prisons, hidden from view–we might find unparalleled happiness.