The Shape of Water review
What am I? What are you? And what do our actions make us? These are the primary questions both asked and answered by Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, The Shape of Water. It is a film about monsters and love, but it is also about how we are defined and who we let define us.
In the hands of many other filmmakers, The Shape of Water would be a maudlin, saccharine endeavor. Indeed, several sequences — out of context — are almost laughable. To describe this movie in detail is to undo its magic, and yet del Toro weaves a unique and sentimental love story between a woman and a fish-man all the same.
And that’s the back of the box quote, so to speak. The Shape of Water is a fairy tale love story between a young woman and a fish-man from South America, worshipped as a local deity before being dredged out of the river muck and shipped off to a Cold War-era American research facility. He speaks no words, but then neither does she. And it all works out somehow.
This is in part because the film spends a great deal of time establishing the inner lives of its main cast: the needs and wants of a young mute woman, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), whom society deems incomplete; her neighbor, an older closeted gay man; and a company man dissatisfied with the American Dream he’s living. All of these characters are explored, albeit not always with subtlety.
Strickland (Michael Shannon), the main antagonist, is as much a victim of his own image of masculinity as anything else. He demands deference in all things, and looks down upon anything he believes society might consider weak – including our heroine, a cleaning lady at the lab at which he works. In one scene, Strickland refuses to wash his hands after using the bathroom simply because he’d already done so prior to relieving himself. Doing both before and after, he says, is a “weakness of character.”
This, itself, is of course shown to be a weakness of character. His dogged devotion to a perfect record of service and reckless bravado becomes his undoing; his desperate need to present as a certain kind of man ending with two of his fingers rotting off — likely because they were never properly cleaned — and literally weakening him.
But that is the crux of the film: who we are is neither who we say we are or even who we genuinely believe ourselves to be. Elisa transcends humanity by the film’s end. She finds in the fish-man (Doug Jones) someone who sees her as she truly is, and comes to eventually see herself in a different light as a result. Giles (Richard Jenkins), a lonely freelance illustrator who believes he was born into the wrong era, ends up an invaluable part of Elisa’s plan to free the fish-man, despite believing himself impotent both professionally and personally.
Even the man at the Dixie Doug pie counter with whom Giles is initially smitten is in fact only putting on act of politeness, while actually being homophobic and racist. Hell, even the pie counter itself is a facade: there’s no Dixie Doug and pies are shipped all over country. It’s called franchising, the server says. This small part of the film exists as if only to say: nothing is only ever its surface. More lies beneath than we know.
As with other del Toro films, The Shape of Water is more than it appears on its surface. One need only scratch ever so lightly to find meaning. I suspect that “woman falls in love with fish-man” will be an off-putting pitch to some, but if they give the film the benefit of the doubt, they will not regret it.