The Shape of Water is a beautiful love story, but unlike any you’ve likely seen. We’ve had many films about humans falling in love with aliens or robots, but this is about a woman falling in love with a hybrid of a man and an amphibian. I can’t imagine what the children would look like.
The first film you’ll think of while watching this is The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Director Guillermo Del Toro was originally pitching a remake of that film, but from the creature’s point of view. That didn’t fly, so he made what is kind of a sequel to it, taking the story beyond his capture.
It’s set during the Cold War. Sally Hawkins plays a mute woman (scars on her neck indicate she was mauled as an infant) who works as a cleaning lady in a government laboratory. One day a hush-hush project comes in: it’s the “asset,” caught in the Amazon by Michael Shannon. The creature’s breathing abilities could be useful for study for the space program. The Russians want it. Hawkins, realizing he’s an outsider like she is, and doesn’t know she’s “incomplete,” falls in love.
The Shape of Water is like a fairy-tale. Richard Jenkins, who plays Hawkins’ lonely neighbor (he’s a closeted gay man) narrates, and all that is missing is a “once upon a time.” Shannon is the villain, but he’s not entirely cardboard–his motivation is that he never fails, and when Hawkins, helped by Jenkins, her co-worker Octavia Spencer, and a scientist who doesn’t want to see the creature killed (Michael Stuhlbarg) rescue him from the clutches of the government, Shannon is a man on a mission.
I liked this film very much but I have a few misgivings. One, is that they would let cleaning women see this big secret so readily. Two, when Hawkins and gill-man (they should have named him) climb into the bathtub together, I felt a cringe, as this was too close to bestiality to me. Yes, Del Toro goes there. And some of the plot mechanisms are a bit creaky–especially concerning a note Hawkins writes on her calendar.
It all looks sensational, from the lab to a diner to a movie palace (Hawkins and Jenkins live over a movie theater, wouldn’t you know). Jenkins is a big fan of old musicals, which he and Hawkins watch together on TV. This leads to Del Toro’s most audacious scene, with Hawkins and the creature dancing together in a black and white musical. What could have been a laughable scene comes off as very poignant. Del Toro, like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, are encyclopedias of film, and often use old references in their movies. I think this is only movie that references Alice Faye and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The acting is top notch. I hope and expect Hawkins and Jenkins to get Oscar nominations. Shannon deserves one, too. This is very much like the treasury agent role he plays on Boardwalk Empire, but with different shadings. Doug Jones, who has often played creatures in Del Toro’s films, is the creature. Stuhlbarg, who seems to be in everything, is very effective. When he first came on the scene in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man I thought it was a one-and-done kind of thing, but he has a very good chance of appearing in three of the Best Picture nominees this year, with The Shape of Water, Call Me By Your Name, and The Post. You have to give him credit for picking good projects.