There are few things more difficult for a great filmmaker to pull off than a dream project.
I’ve written about this before, and I’ve spoken about it as well. It’s one of the strange rules of filmmaking. Most of the time, dream projects get made after a filmmaker has a huge success, and they tend to be movies that the filmmaker couldn’t get made for any number of reasons. By the time the filmmaker finally gets into the right position to make the film, they’ve lived with it for so long and over-thought it so much that the final result is often indulgent. It’s possible to cook something too long creatively, and these dream projects frequently end up as a baffling mess that’s a million miles from the thing that originally inspired the artist in the first place.
In the case of The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro’s most personal film to date, you’ve got the best-case scenario. You’ve got a filmmaker at the height of his creative powers turning his attention back to an image that inspired his love of film as a child, and using that image as a jumping-off point to tell a story that is both timely and timeless, exquisitely crafted, and almost breathtakingly confessional.
The Shape of Water is a dream project in the sense that del Toro is reaching deep into his own dream life, shaped so vividly by the films and books he absorbed as a child, and anyone who was lucky enough to see his museum show that toured this year knows he has spent a lifetime amassing this remarkable collection so he can constantly soak in the long tradition of fantastic art and literature. When he works in fairy tale mode, it’s very much in line with the original versions of those stories, dark and violent and shot through with sadness. Here, he’s telling a story about outsiders, the people that life has pushed to the margins, and the way they take strength from each other, and there’s such a direct, simple beauty to it that it feels like the most approachable thing he’s ever made.
The image that del Toro is drawing from is one of the most potent in all of fantasy cinema. It takes place in Creature From the Black Lagoon, when Julie Adams goes swimming, unaware that the Gill Man is just a few feet below her, swimming upside down so he’s almost mirroring her movements. It is an image that says so much, that pierces through at some subconscious level. It is chilling, a reminder that we are vulnerable in the water, especially to something at home there, but it is also thrilling and even erotic. Del Toro has taken all of that and expressed it through The Shape of Water, co-scripted rather quickly with Vanessa Taylor, and it is the first time it feels like he’s working directly from his heart, expressing all of the longing and desire and joy he’s got there, and doing it in a way that is uniquely his. Only Guillermo would envision an actual physical love story between his creature from a not-quite-black lagoon and the mute janitor played like a silent film comedian, and only he would find a way to make the audience actually root for them to be together. It sounds ridiculous and even gross, and in the wrong hands, it might be. With Guillermo at the helm, though, it is nothing less than magic — an entire movie shot through with the same primal dream force as that face-to-face swim from Creature, and a serious contender for my favorite film of the year.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) can’t speak, but that doesn’t mean she’s quiet. As played by Hawkins, Elisa is a constant explosion of tiny charms, like her body is full of music and laughter she can’t quite contain. She’s a quiet joy in the lives of her friends, like her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) or her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and she seems happy enough. She’s settled. She’s comfortable. And then the government laboratory where she’s employed becomes the staging site for the study of a dangerous sample, an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) who was “worshipped as a River God” in South America, where he was found. The team studying him includes Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), and there’s a government liaison, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who views the creature as something to be dealt with and destroyed.
Elisa is immediately drawn to the creature, fascinated by it, and she’s saddened to see that they’re mistreating and abusing it. Del Toro charts every tiny step forward in the intimacy between the two characters, and considering they don’t talk at all, there is an astonishing amount of communication between them. Del Toro wrote the film for Sally Hawkins, tailoring it to her, and she rose to the challenge by giving this incredibly technical performance that is spilling over with humanity. Everything she does speaks to character, whether it’s dropping in a few dance steps as she heads down a hall, or the precision she uses when drawing the creature out. It’s a richly observed performance, and as always, that smile of hers is a weapon, deployed in the exact right way every time. Likewise, Doug Jones is to make-up roles as Andy Serkis is to performance capture — the gold standard, and his work here is exquisite. He is utterly alien, and even once he’s started to build a rudimentary sign language vocabulary, he’s never turned into “just” a guy in a suit. There’s a beauty to the way Doug Jones performs through this remarkable make-up, and he makes it clear that this thing thinks and feels in its own way.
The film is set during the Cold War, and there’s a very simple quality to the politics of everything. This isn’t like Pan’s Labyrinth, where I feel like the time and place were as much the point as any of the fantasy trappings. Here, the Cold War gives Guillermo a big, heightened backdrop against which he can play out his fantastic love story. There’s something about the way people dress, about the cars, about the level of technology… this feels like it is the perfect, fairy tale America. It’s slightly removed from where we are now, but not so removed that it feels like “a long, long time ago.” Agent Strickland is a climber, and he knows how to stoke paranoia in others, never realizing how much it’s eating him up as well. He can’t see any beauty in the creature, instead viewing it solely as something that could be turned into a weapon. Failing that, he’s willing to destroy it simply to make sure the Russians don’t get their hands on it. Strickland sees himself as a moral man, a good man dedicated to rooting out evil, but he’s easily the most damaged person in the film.
At one point, Strickland becomes obsessed with hunting down a “strike team” that he’s sure Russia has sent to infiltrate the labs, and part of what makes the film so wonderful is that the strike team is made up entirely of people Strickland would never consider a threat or worth his attention in any way. Elisa depends on help from Giles and Zelda, and they are the perfect people to see the truth in her actions. Giles has his secrets, and he’s struggling to maintain some sort of foothold in his career even as younger talents are forcing him out. He’s starting to feel invisible, and he’s full of sorrow and anger about it. He leans on Elisa for support, and vice versa. Jenkins, who is always a consummate professional, gives Giles a gorgeous, world-weary sadness that never feels forced or phony. He’s just reached a point where he knows how things work, and that they don’t work for him. At work, Zelda is the one who always has Elisa’s back, clocking her in when she’s late, covering for her if she dawdles. As a black woman, Zelda is used to being invisible, and she knows how valuable it can be sometimes. Octavia Spencer (who seems to make great choices when choosing genre fare) knows just how much to show us of what Zelda’s really thinking, and her loyalty to her friend is quite moving. The three of them are the last people anyone would suspect of defying the government or pulling off an escape attempt, and that’s what makes them so perfect for it. It’s beautiful to see a movie like this where the heroes are the people who would be pushed to the edge of the frame in any other movie like this.
This is the best score Alexandre Desplat has composed since Lust, Caution, and considering I still listen to that one a few times a month, that is high praise indeed. It’s lush and romantic, and it understands the exact nature of the story that del Toro is telling. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is so adept at mixing reality and effects that it feels almost like an animated movie. Everything is precise and perfect and heartbreaking. It is a film you can breathe in, and it’s going to connect to many viewers in a way that is almost chemical. It is a film about being broken-hearted and not even realizing it, then suddenly finding that connection that begins to repair the heart, making it even stronger. Films like this get clobbered all the time precisely because they are so sentimental, but this is a courageous film because it is so sincere, so open.
There is a momentary flight of fancy late in the film, a digression that is pure movie decadence, icing on top of candy on top of frosting, and it surprised me so much that I applauded. It’s over as soon as it begins, but for that moment, the movie takes flight into a whole different atmosphere. It is a move that dares you to mock the movie, that dares you to find it too sweet, and it is a move that tells you everything you need to know about the dark and beautiful heart of Guillermo del Toro.
Running time: 123 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic