One of the many things I love about the cinema is the way it can effectively convey human longing for meaning, for connection, for passion through primarily visual means. Film is, first and foremost, a visual medium, and the best films recognize the old adage that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words.
Prolific director Guillermo Del Toro understands this film making rule better than most, and his new strange concoction, The Shape of Water, is perhaps his most polished and profound meditation on the power of the moving image yet.
Del Toro highlights this theme in bold font by introducing us to Eliza Esposito (played by an extraordinary Sally Hawkins), a woman incapable of speech since she was a little girl. In Cold War-era Baltimore, she spends her days in rigid routine, riding the bus to her job as a custodian at the high-tech Occam Aerospace Research Center. Her only friends in the world seem to be her sarcastic co-worker Zelda (who talks as much as Eliza doesn’t) and her eccentric artist next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). But relationships generally don’t come easy for Eliza; no one wants to talk to a mute woman, and learning how to do so takes valuable time. Eliza seems to be drifting through life, taking pleasure and solace in masturbating and eating a borderline-unhealthy amount of hard boiled eggs.
But Eliza’s life changes when the mysterious Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives at the facility with a pod containing a mysterious creature (played by Doug Jones). Strickland discovered this “Asset” in the rivers of South America, where it was apparently worshiped as a god, and now the American government is eager to figure out if it can be used as a weapon to turn the tide of the Cold War against Russia. Naturally, these folks don’t care much for the creature’s opinion on all of this, but Strickland is an especially cruel captor. Humans are made in God’s image, he says, and this thing doesn’t look like any human he’s ever seen. It’s an abomination, a tool to be used and discarded, nothing more.
But Eliza and head research scientist Robert Hoffstetler (the always welcome Michael Stuhlbarg), disagree. Hoffstetler sees the creature as a thing of beauty that should be protected, and, for Eliza, the creature is something more. As she sneaks into the containment facility to see the creature, she forms an undeniable bond with it (him?). Soon, she is spending her lunch breaks feeding the Asset hard boiled eggs, introducing him to music and enjoying the quiet company of someone who finally seems to understand her. But Eliza also overhears some troubling things: it seems that Strickland’s plans for the monster might be even more nefarious, and she soon decides he must be rescued from the highly guarded facility and taken to a nearby canal, where he can swim free again. Can the silent woman, going so long unnoticed, save her friend and perhaps, in the process, find a voice of her own?
The Shape of Water is the kind of film that swims in atmosphere. This is an intoxicating world, filled with deep shades of green and dark, warm tones. Del Toro’s films have always been visually spectacular, but this is surely his best looking film to date. The director reunites with Crimson Peak cinematographer Dan Lausten, and the results are breathtaking. That film was definitely a case of style over substance, but here, the gorgeous visuals are in service of a story worthy of them.
The Shape of Water could have easily been a fairly simple fable, told with visual flair and accomplished style. That could have been enough to make this work. But, much like Del Toro’s legendary fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, this film is seeking something much deeper. At heart, this is a tale about people without a voice finding a way to make themselves heard in a world that isn’t interested in listening. Eliza and the Asset are both incapable of speech, sure, but Zelda, a black woman and Giles, a closeted gay man, often feel equally voiceless and lonely. These outsiders rally together around what they see as one of their own, a poignant take on what a non-traditional community can look like. Few films have more effectively conveyed the existential loneliness that threatens to drown those who feel marginalized. One of the film’s most powerful scenes takes place in a local diner over a piece of pie, where a conversation gone wrong forces Giles to confront a heart-rending revelation. It’s soul-searing, tear-inducing stuff.
What really knocks the picture into the stratosphere are the performances. This is one of the best acting ensembles in recent memory, without a weak link in sight. I love Shannon’s perfect mix of menace and humor and Jenkins’ soulfully sad performance. But, this is Hawkins’ show, and she is amazing. It’s difficult to convey the gamut of human emotions without dialogue, but Hawkins does it all with her face and body. The joy of discovering something new exists alongside the sadness and desperation of her deep longing and loneliness. But Eliza is always, at heart, an optimistic dreamer, and somehow, we get to know all of that without her ever saying anything (not vocally at least; she often uses sign language to communicate). It’s one of the best performances in recent memory, maybe ever, and it deserves a truckload of awards.
Like he did with his undisputed masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro has once again taken a tumultuous historical period and infused it with an intriguing and wholly original sci-fi/fantasy twist. Unlike that film, The Shape of Water is not perfect. I feel that Del Toro could have easily cut out a lot of the unnecessary nudity, and the fact that the relationship between Eliza and the Asset is not exactly platonic is…odd, to say the least. And yet, even the more overtly sexual aspects of the film result in some of it’s most beautiful scenes, (keep an eye out for a scene that involves a bathroom and a lot of water–it’s stunning), so the film does a good job overall of thematically earning its more outlandish moments.
For those willing to get lost in its bizarre and beautiful vision, The Shape of Water simply cannot be missed. I’m still not sure if it can be called a fantasy, a romance or a Cold War thriller; maybe it’s a bunch of genres mashed together. Whatever it is, it’s beyond wonderful, and one of cinema’s finest examples of the mysterious cosmic rule that love is best expressed not in word, but in deed. That’s a message we all should pay attention to.