What “The Shape of Water” ultimately amounts to is Guillermo Del Toro’s own adoration for monster and romance cinema. Del Toro constantly evokes shades of “The Creature Walks Among Us,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” while also channeling Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo.” Much like the latter, “The Shape of Water” depicts a somewhat whimsical romance in a world filled with misery and darkness at every corner. Del Toro has a lot to say about the ugliness of humanity and the ideas of what monsters truly are in this world and others.
Set in 1960’s Baltimore, Elisa is a mute young woman who spends her days watching movies with her friend Giles. During the day she works as a cleaning woman in a laboratory alongside her friend Zelda, and eventually discovers a creature lurking in the lab. Said creature is an anthropomorphic amphibian who takes a liking to Elisa and soon the pair form a bond that evolves in to love. Del Toro is clever in painting our characters Elisa, Zelda, and Giles as unique beings in their own worlds that view them as sub-human, as they live through the cold war and civil rights movement. They’re all walking a fine line in their own world as hate and ignorance reign supreme allowing violence to enter in one form or another.
“The Shape of Water” can easily fall apart and feel like recycled material, but Del Toro draws on a myriad characters struggling to find their paths and live what they think is normalcy. Michael Shannon’s superb as Strickland, a man hopelessly drowned in ignorance, and toxic masculinity and revels in materialism, racism, and pure misogyny. Elisa and the amphibian man’s relationship make up the wealth of the narrative, as they find a kinship in her sign language communication. Elisa and the amphibian man are very much a poetic form of the interracial relationship, in a time where African Americans are pictured on televisions being sprayed by fire hoses, and being Gay is so disgusting it’s not even spoken about in hushed tones.
Del Toro still builds on this idea of the outcast and pariah, while also picturing Elisa and the creature’s relationship as a flicker of gold in a sea of darkness. Like many races, the amphibian man is a victim of a white explorer (Michael Shannon) who kidnaps him, keeps him prisoner and hopes to exploit what abilities he can offer civilization. It’s by sheer luck he meets Elisa, a woman who’s viewed as inferior by most in her world, but is superior in that race, sexuality, class mean absolutely nothing to her. Their courtship and eventual falling in love is surreal and breathtaking, with Del Toro painting these scenes as the time where all sense of limitations is cast aside. Guillermo Del Toro pulls some eloquent and subtle performances from his entire cast, with Sally Hawkins offering a very sweet turn as Elisa, while folks like Octavia Spencer, and Richard Jenkins are absolutely charming.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention frequent Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones who disappears in to the character of the amphibian man and turns him in to a mystifying, genuinely intriguing, albeit alluring character. “The Shape of Water” is yet another masterwork from Guillermo Del Toro, it’s beaming with life and beautiful commentary on love, ignorance and the concept of monsters.