"The Shape of Water": A Dazzling Tale of Monstrosity and Love
Guillermo del Toro is the monster-movie master. From dark, creepy films like Pan’s Labyrinth to action-packed blockbusters like Pacific Rim, Guillermo has shown us time and time again that he knows how to create frightening but fascinating monsters. His most recent release, The Shape of Water, won two Golden Globes and has the most Oscar nominations this year. But this film differs from his past works in that it does not center around action or horror; The Shape of Water is- first and foremost- a love story.
The film stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute woman who works as a custodian at a government research facility. Because she cannot speak, her communication is mostly limited to her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her housemate, Giles (Richard Jenkins), both of whom know sign language. However, Hawkins does not seem hindered by being speechless in the film, and manages to convey Elisa’s strong emotions through merely body and facial expressions. The way I see it, if DiCaprio can win an Oscar for grunting his way through The Revenant, Hawkins should be a shoe-in.
Of course, every Guillermo del Toro film needs a monster. One day, Elisa and Zelda see that an amphibious, man-like creature has been brought in to the facility to be studied. With her curiosity piqued, Elisa sneaks in and meets the Amphibian Man, played by Doug Jones in a latex-rubber outfit that I can only assume was incredibly uncomfortable.
The Amphibian Man is more amphibian than man, but the fact that he and Elisa both cannot speak initiates a kind of bond between them, which eventually evolves into…well, a romance. Guillermo has essentially given us a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but this time, the Beast doesn’t turn into a man before they get frisky. I will admit, I was slightly taken aback when Elisa and the monster had sex, but I was more taken aback at the fact that nobody questioned it. I understand that the film’s message is that true love knows no bounds, but are we really supposed to believe that Giles and Zelda would not find it even slightly disconcerting that their friend had sex with a fish monster?
Ironically, the real monster in The Shape of Water is a man. Agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) is the one who captured the Amphibian Man and oversees the research in the facility. If Michael Shannon’s innately villainous presence wasn’t enough to convince you that Strickland is a bad guy, everything else about him should. He wears mostly black, often with a trench coat, and demeans everyone who works at the facility. His determination and take-no-shit attitude make him one of the most entertaining characters in the movie, even if he is ultimately despicable.
Truth be told, I never expected that The Shape of Water would be the film to beat at the Oscars. I thought a film essentially about a bestial relationship would be too avant-garde for the Academy, but the whopping 13 nominations say otherwise. I think it is a good sign that the Academy is recognizing a film with such an unorthodox romance, but this is also a testament to the film’s effectiveness, raising thought-provoking questions about how we communicate and how we define love. The best example is in a scene between Elisa and Giles. Giles argues that the Amphibian Man is not human because he can’t even speak their language, to which Elisa responds “what does that make me?” This emotional scene makes us rethink our initial disapproval of Elisa’s feelings for the monster, and proves that Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins definitely deserve their Oscar nominations.
The Shape of Water is a monster movie harboring a remarkably human story, and I doubt anyone other than Guillermo del Toro could have told it. With 13 nominations, the film has already succeeded in making its mark (although it really should be 14- where’s the love for Michael Shannon?)
Final Score: 7/10