Guillermo del Toro is a director who gives a unique, fantastical look and feel to the frightening and uncanny, equally comfortable with straightforward horror (The Strain, Mimic), contemporary comic-book action thrillers (Hellboy, Blade II) and gothic themed fantasies (Crimson Peak, Pan’s Labyrinth). His latest release, The Shape Of Water, doesn’t fit easily into those categories. It is a monster movie in which the monster is not the threat, but the victim; and in which the plot, while often suspenseful, is meant to inspire a feeling of enchantment rather than fear.
In a story set in the early 1960s, the brilliant Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a janitorial worker for a research facility run by the US army. She has been mute from infancy, due to a mysterious injury that has left her with permanent scars on her neck, and no voice. She is established as a meek, kind-hearted person who, incidentally, has a strong affinity for water; she even has dreams of living beneath the water. Since Elisa is unable to speak except through seldom used signs, we learn about her character indirectly, through her actions and Sally Hawkins’ subtle but revealing expressions and body language; or by means of her close friend and neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer).
Things begin to change when a new ‘asset’ is brought into Elisa’s workplace. It appears to be some kind of aquatic animal transported to a secure room and kept in a large tank of water. Eventually, Elisa has a chance to see the creature. It is a fantastic, amphibious humanoid, an elaborate, painstaking creation of costume and makeup on a live actor (Doug Jones, who has appeared in several of del Toro’s films in the past) and as disturbingly realistic as it is preposterous. The curious Elisa manages to overhear some discussion of the creature; it was captured in South America, where the local people revere it as some sort of demigod. What concerns Elisa most is the harsh and cruel treatment of the captive being, especially by the man in charge, the sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who hates the beast for unspecified reasons and subjects it to pointless torment.
While the army discusses potential military uses of their strange captive and debates whether to keep it alive, the main storyline follows Elisa’s furtive contact with the creature and, as she comes to recognise that it is intelligent, the growing, mostly wordless friendship that grows between them. Elisa brings the creature food, teaches it sign language, plays music for it, and comforts it after the beatings administered by its captors. Elisa feels a kinship to the sea monster who, like her, is unable to speak, and is treated as unimportant by the military personnel surrounding them; who loves water and music; and who seems to depend on the comfort of having a single ally in its harsh prison environment. In time, her friendship for the creature develops into a form of romantic love.
When the threat to the ‘asset’ escalates, Elisa, with the reluctant assistance of her friends, helps him to escape. This takes the film’s action to another level in two parallel plotlines: the suspense of Elisa and the others evading the military staff tracking their missing captive, and the openly grotesque yet unapologetically romantic portrayal of the development and consummation of Elisa’s relationship with the creature. It is the love story between Elisa and the beast that is certainly the most difficult to present in a credible way; it could very easily veer into either the horrible or the ridiculous. Director Guillermo del Toro somehow manages to make their relationship both outlandish and believable. He compares this aspect of the story with myths of women coupled with gods in animal form, such as Leda and the swan. Concerned about having the story rendered less effective by the superficial implication of bestiality or human-alien interactions, he chose to film these scenes in what he calls “the Latin American way,” making the odd love story “poetic and simple,” portrayed using magical realism. Del Toro also shifts the standard mythology by placing the woman in charge of the relationship, having her rescue the god-beast initially, thereby earning his gratitude and devotion. Having allowed the magical overtones to gradually increase as the plot unwinds, the final scenes of the film plunge completely but seamlessly into the mythological.
Del Toro acknowledges the parallels of some of the film’s features with details of 1950s and 60s Hollywood movies. The aquatic man-beast bears a striking resemblance to the iconic monster from the 1954 film Creature From the Black Lagoon, which del Toro admits is the inspiration for his own creature’s design. (He once hoped to direct a remake of Black Lagoon which offered the monster a happy ending.) The early 1960s setting invokes the films of that era, as do several key moments in the film. The character of Strickland, domineering, determined, and prepared to kill the captive beast if necessary, might well be the hero of a typical 1950s monster film, but in The Shape of Water, he is the villain, his hyper-masculine strength and resolve revealed as mere brutality. At the same time, Elisa, rather than being the stock damsel in distress, bonds with the monster and saves him from the ‘hero’. A particularly bright spot, and a highly unconventional bit of cinema which further redefines the monster scenario, is a scene which brings Elisa’s fantasies to life: we see her daydream enacted, in which she suddenly regains her voice and sings to the creature, then finds herself in a perfect, black and white depiction of a ballroom dance straight from a 1940s musical. A ballroom scene which includes a sea monster is yet another highly precarious piece of footage, which del Toro somehow pulls off and makes touching rather than absurd.
The monster himself is surprisingly effective and sympathetic as a character, in spite of his being wordless and his motives uncertain for almost the entire film. His potential as a threat is made clear early on, when he attacks and maims one of his captors, and an undercurrent of danger continues even as Elisa chooses to trust him. Occasional erratic and destructive acts by the creature sustain the uncertainly of Elisa’s safety in his presence. Only in the final act is the creature’s benign nature made fully evident, in an alien but beautifully touching gesture of apology that establishes the being as sentient and capable of empathy, leading into the purely magical conclusion.
Critical acclaim and multiple award nominations testify to the film’s surprising success. The entire story is a composite of things which shouldn’t work in a film, which ought to come across as either silly, grandiose, implausible, or inadvertently nasty, but do not. Del Toro has spoken of cases in which, granted a large budget and big-name cast, he let the weight of expectations from his investors direct his choices and force him to choose safety over creativity, and how he regrets the negative impact this approach has had on the quality of some of his films. The Shape of Water was done with a smaller budget than usual, and a slightly lesser-known (although brilliant) cast, which evidently has granted him more freedom to take risks. The filmmaker’s fearless commitment to his vision, supported by a fantastic cast and well-chosen talent in every category from makeup to musical score, has made this unlikely concept a strange but fascinating triumph of creative confidence.