Guillermo del Toro continues to refine his already very-refined monster fairy tale storytelling in “The Shape of Water”, a product of his imagination fermenting for decades over the Gill-man monster from “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and the shades of romance he had with the female (human!) lead of the film.
The film being the product of so many years of imagination stewing and developing really does show. Del Toro’s striking, eclectic style is deployed with a purity and coherence of vision perhaps not seen since his “Pan’s Labyrinth”. So many influences from other films are creatively collided in Del Toro’s unique style here. That sort of synthesis peak in a moment where the “Asset”, the film’s own Gill-man monster, stands in the middle of an empty cinema, drinking in the film on screen, a striking meta moment of one of cinema’s greatest monsters being enthralled by the cinema itself, all orchestrated by the man whose being in that place is what eventually resulted in this film existing. It’s like the cinema is the church and the monster is worshipping its own god and creator, film itself.
Sally Hawkins is a revelation in the film, embodying her mute character with so much nuance and energy, radiant and infectious joy, such a contagious smile, but never feeling twee or underwritten. The film revolves around characters without voice, if not all as literal as Hawkins’ protagonist – spies unable to speak their mind or act as they truly are, lower classes keeping their lips sealed in front of their superiors, closeted gay men, people of colour in the 1950s, monsters lacking the ability for speech, and so on. The film centring on the perspective not of the typical heroes in a film like this (a monster movie), or even the scientists, is fascinating, as it takes on the characters in the margins, the voiceless, and crafts a surprising take on a monster movie (a fairytale romance) out of it.
The striking colour scheme, green hues spread as society, red covering for love, the suggestions of more fantastical readings of the film (water droplets controlled on a window, the hint of a slashed throat not just being a random crime), the explorations of inhumanity (Michael Shannon’s antagonist insists God looks more like him than anyone else, and the film sees characters fight to assert their humanity against such constrictive standards, but it’s perhaps the monster who gets more godly recognition in the end), it’s all executed wonderfully, the script and direction working together in a way it hasn’t always done as neatly for Del Toro’s last few efforts.
Even the characters who aren’t voiceless are still contorting their expressions of themselves in unnatural, pretended ways – Michael Shannon’s villain purports himself to be a dignified family man, multiple characters fake accents, characters adorn hairpieces and disguises and smother their own voices and loves. Characters constrain themselves with time (egg timers used to regiment all sorts of things), but love, the great liberator, sees things crawl in slow motion. Water is the film’s take on love – it can take and adapt to any container, come in many forms, but can always burst out. It’s gentle, malleable, but can ultimately break through any and every barrier. The shape of water is love. Four eggs, and a bath.