Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Director Report Card: Guillermo del Toro (2017)

10. The Shape of Water

I love “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Both the monster and the movie. Though derivative, it's an excellent B-movie and completed the pantheon of classic monster archetype, by putting a famous name to the fish man concept. Mostly, I just love the Gillman, who is as lonely as he is dangerous. Universal Studio has been trying for decades to remake the movie, with the most recent planned iteration being a part of the already flat-lining Dark Universe. At one point, Guillermo del Toro was briefly attached to remake the film. When the trailer for “The Shape of Water” first started appearing, many people were eager to connect it to del Toro's “Hellboy” movies. I, however, immediately realized that the film likely emerged from del Toro's unrealized “Creature” remake. And now del Toro's revisionist monster love story may be a Best Picture winner.

Set in the early days of the Kennedy administration, the film follows Elisa. A mute woman working as a custodian at a government research facility, she lives about a movie theater. Her best friend and roommate is a gay man. Many of her co-workers are black. Each are outsiders in different ways, often ignored and abused by the white men that run the building. A top secret Asset is brought to the facility. A humanoid fish-creature taken from the Amazon, the government hopes to learn his secrets. And when they're done doing that, they'll kill him. Elisa, however, forms a bond with the amphibian man and becomes determined to save his life.

“The Shape of Water” is a distillation of del Toro's themes and concepts. An opening and closing narration frames the story in the context of a fairy tale. Something floating in a glass container is one of the main visuals of the movie. An underground tunnel puts in an appearance, in a round about way. (Though there's not much in the way of precocious children or clockwork creations.) More importantly, the film's themes clearly come directly from the director's hearts. This is a story of outsiders, misfits and monsters. Those that appear off-putting or strange, that are persecuted or pushed away, end up being less monstrous than the authority figures. The film is a loving, romantic ode to “monsters,” in the Greek sense of the word – meaning something hidden – and how that contrasts with a world eager to stamp out anything unusual or out of the ordinary.

“The Shape of Water” is also an incredibly beautiful, visually. The film is characterized by a blueish-green color, recalling light reflecting down through water. Moreover, every detail in the movie is clearly planned and highly detailed. One of the first scenes shows Elisa walking down from her apartment. We see frost on the window outside. A man waits for the same bus, who is clearly an important character in some other story. Many of the supporting characters clearly have fully realized lives and backstories of their own. Every background detail has been researched, with an obvious meaning behind it. “The Shape of Water” is one of the most meticulous films from a filmmaker known to be especially meticulous.

Sally Hawkins has had a respectable career as a character actress, winning accolades for indie films like “Happy-Go-Lucky” while appearing in bit parts in big budget stuff like “Godzilla.” Elisa's muteness does not limit Hawkins' abilities any. In fact, it seems to free her. Using her wide eyes and expressive face, Hawkins tells us everything we need to know about Elisa. She lets us inside her silent world, showing Elisa's humor, compassion, intense loneliness, and longing for more. Her sign language is frequently translated and even subtitled some times – leading one of the best cinematic F-bombs in recent memory – but I think Hawkins' performance would have been just as soulful and impressive even without that.

Throughout six films now, Guillermo del Toro has called upon Doug Jones to bring various fantastical creatures to life. (Including at least one previous fish humanoid.) Jones, naturally, plays the character listed in the credits as the Amphibian Man, but is only known in the film as the Asset. By now, it's well-known that Jones is more than capable acting through heavy make-up, rubber, and latex. Using minimal CGI, Jones makes the Asset a living, breathing character. With just a cock of his head or a simple hand gesture, Jones is able to express so much. The audience quickly gets attached to the Asset, Jones bringing layers of humanity and even a sense of style and grace to the gill-man.

There's a very clear subversion at play in “The Shape of Water.” Del Toro is telling a fifties monster movie story but the roles are reversed. The hideous fish-creature is the hero. The villain, meanwhile, is the FBI G-man. Michael Shannon plays Colonel Richard Strickland with a degree of charm, even giving him a seemingly normal family life. At first, he seems like a total professional, even showing some humor. However, the film slowly reveals Strickland's racism, sexism, and prejudice. Del Toro even physically manifests this reveal, as Strickland's necrotic fingers grow black and rotten as the story goes on. Shannon, a performer of great intensity and off-beat appeal, is perfect for the part of a monstrous man gradually showing his rotten depths.

Aside from its central three leads, “The Shape of Water” also features a wonderful supporting cast. Richard Jenkins is wonderfully empathetic as Giles, Elisa's friend and roommate. Jenkins' best scene comes when he attempts to awkwardly hit on the owner on the pie shop he's crushing on. Jenkins has his own brand of quiet humor, that is well suited for the part. Octavia Spencer appears as Zelda, Elisa's co-worker and one of her few friends at the government facility. Spencer elevates a part that could've been a simple sassy, black best friend. Her incredible sense of dignity makes Zelda a fully formed character. Lastly, Michael Sthulbarg shows an interesting degree of nervousness as the Soviet spy who ends up working alongside Elisa to save the fish-man.

“The Shape of Water” is unabashedly a love story. A key scene, shown in the trailer, has Elisa reaching out to the fish-man out of common compassion. She sees a lot of herself in the amphibian man, as neither can speak. Yet her interest in the fish-man goes beyond general empathy. “The Shape of Water” is about, rather literally, the healing power of love. The two find a way of completing each other, both outsiders that are opened to love. Yes, del Toro does take this romance to its natural conclusion. Elisa is openly portrayed as a sexual being, masturbating frequently, and the Asset is more than capable of satisfying her. Amazingly, this aspect never feels sensationalist or exploitative. It's a natural expression of their love.

Aside from making its human hero a monster and its monster a humanistic hero, Del Toro's film subverts its early sixties setting in other ways. Kennedy's Camelot is not a pure fairy tale setting though. This is the Cold War era, full of paranoia and political tension. Both the Soviets and the U.S. Government see the fish-man, not as a living creature, but as an Asset to be exploited. Sthulbarg's desire to save him puts him at odds with both countries. Shannon's character believes spies are everywhere, using his paranoia as an excuse to brutalize people around him. “The Shape of Water” doesn't look kindly on either government. It portrays the Cold War as an ugly, petty conflict that costed far too much human life.

Aside from being a love story between a woman and an amphibian, “The Shape of Water” is also a love letter to cinema. Since their apartment is above a movie theater, Elisa and Giles' lives are frequently contrasted against the Technicolor films on the silver screen. This informs del Toro's entire movie, as “The Shape of Water” is brought to life using the same language and texture as these silver age movies. Its color palette is richer and deeper, an obvious love of cinema dripping from every frame. This peaks in the film's most joyous sequence: A literal musical number, where Elisa's inner fantasy world comes to life as a song-and-dance scene... Which just happens to feature a dancing fish-man. It's a brilliant, beautiful moment.

In fact, “The Shape of Water” is a very musical film, in many ways. Alexandre Desplat's score is playful and lively. It's tapping melodies bring to mind droplets of rain outside a window. There's a clear romanticism and mystery to much of the score. As if the film's obvious debt to French New Wave cinema wasn't obvious, Desplat frequently incorporates a Parisian accordion from time to time. Yet there's also a sense of every day life, highlighted in scenes of Elisa going about her work day. No mater how grounded Desplat's music becomes, there's always a sense of longing for something more underneath the surface. It's a fantastic score, as whimsical and meaningful as the movie it accompanies.

2018 is a strange and confusing time to be alive. But it can't be all bad, if a movie like “The Shape of Water” is a serious awards contender. It's hard to imagine another time when a quasi-horror movie, an at times dark and odd story about a woman and a gill-man falling in love, could receive more Oscar nominations than any other movies from the previous year. “The Shape of Water” truly is one of the best of the year. It shows del Toro's obsessions crystallizing in a more romantic, melancholic direction, creating a beautiful homage to outsiders and monsters everywhere. Coming from someone else who also wrote a romantic take on “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” it's one of my favorite films of the previous year. [Grade: A]

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