Some of the best monster movies, such as King Kong and Creature from the Black Lagoon, allow rivulets of romantic longing to run through their narratives. The Shape of Water turns that subtext into a tidal wave.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro, from a script he co-wrote with Vanessa Taylor, The Shape of Water may take its visual cues from such creature features, but tonally it’s a fairy tale. The opening voiceover narration even refers to the main character as a “princess,” even though she’s a mute janitor at a secret government facility in 1960s Baltimore. It’s there that the quiet but curious Elisa (Sally Hawkins) forms a bond with an astonishing, imprisoned experiment subject: an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) captured in the wild of South America. What follows is Beauty and the Beast, with no need for a transformative prince.
Elisa, along with her cleaning partner Zelda (Octavia Spencer), happen to be mopping the floor in the facility’s archaic laboratory when the Amphibian Man’s tank—a steel tube with a single window—is hurriedly wheeled into the space. Before she and Zelda can be rushed out, Elisa peeks through the glass and gets a glimpse of a webbed hand. She can also hear a moan, one reminiscent of the wounded cries of Kong or Frankenstein’s monster—other movie creatures who were tragically condemned.
Entranced and sympathetic, Elisa sneaks into the lab whenever she can to visit the Amphibian Man—something that would seem like a rash decision if Hawkins, whose inner energy as an actress overflowed in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, didn’t give the character such an impish spirit. She’s a bit morbid too; when an “accident” in the lab results in a boorish government operative (Michael Shannon) losing two fingers, Elisa picks them up during her cleaning rounds with an eager intensity.
As Richard Strickland, that agent, Shannon is the movie’s villain and its most broadly drawn character. If The Shape of Water is a fable, he’s the big, bad wolf. One of the first times we meet him, Strickland is holding a bloody cattle prod, but del Toro should know that Shannon doesn’t need a prop to be intimidating. The movie goes on to have some fun undermining this character, and Shannon is more than game. A particularly macabre touch involves those fingers, which are sewn back on but fail to heal and slowly blacken, so that Strickland carries the increasingly putrid scent of death.
If Strickland sees the Amphibian Man as “an affront,” in his words, Elisa considers him to be a miracle. Another part of her attraction is personal. Although she has close friends—Zelda, as well as her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay advertising artist—notice that both of them are chatty types. Even as they genuinely care for Elisa, they also treat her like a receptacle for their uninterrupted thoughts. After all, she can do little more than listen. The Amphibian Man is different. Like Elisa, he can’t speak, and as a fish literally out of water he is desperate to learn what he can. And so he “listens” to her, or at least tries to comprehend her simple sign language.
The Amphibian Man’s characterization and design are ickily exquisite.
This being a del Toro movie, it should come as no surprise that the Amphibian Man’s characterization and design are ickily exquisite. I couldn’t detect a shred of CGI, except perhaps his fluttering eyelids, which are an unsettling touch. Instead, I was constantly attuned to the character’s physical presence: the way the gills on his neck would flap open or the nails on his claws would click against tile and glass. When other characters touch him, a slight slime is left on their hands—gooey evidence for the viewer that they and this creature share the same physical space.
Jones, who is hidden behind this costume and practical effects, has worked with del Toro before, most famously as the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth and more recently as a ghost in Crimson Peak. This is his most prominent performance for the director, and it’s delightful. Jones’ inspiration seems to have come from some of the classic movie musicals that Elisa and Giles watch together. Like those tap dancers, he’s delicate and precise while also thrumming with vibrant (dangerous?) life. When Elisa imagines the Amphibian Man as her dance partner in a black-and-white Hollywood production number, the moment registers as less ridiculous than it sounds because Jones has already laid the literal footwork.
If anything, The Shape of Water could have used more of the Amphibian Man, especially early on. The film moves fairly quickly from mystery to “wooing.” I won’t spoil how far the relationship between Elisa and the Amphibian Man goes, except to note that things get even more intimate than 1976’s King Kong, in which Jessica Lange quivers in the heat of Kong’s breath. The Shape of Water avoids such camp by believing more sincerely in its central romance, while also using it to amplify its fairy-tale moral about loving, not fearing, those who are different. The hatred directed by Strickland against the Amphibian Man is only an exaggerated version of the discrimination we see Giles and Zelda suffer elsewhere in the film, after all.
Fables can be heavy on messages, but they’re also heavy on magic. And The Shape of Water has some truly magical moments. The movie opens underwater, moving from a familiar undersea setting into a flooded apartment, where chairs, tables, and the like float elegantly in place. Later, for reasons I won’t detail, Elisa purposely floods her own bathroom in an overflowing, romantic gesture. And then there is the film’s finale, which eschews the tragedy we’ve come to associate with such monster movies in favor of something altogether new and wonderful. Perhaps the best compliment I can give to The Shape of Water is this: it’s even weirder than you imagine.