While Mexican director Guillermo del Toro has become a vastly recognizable artist across several mediums (with his name gracing novels, films, FX’s The Strain, and even aborted video games), there is certainly one particular piece of his that has gained him respect and favor throughout the industry: Pan’s Labyrinth. The 2006 dark fantasy film was heralded as a masterpiece by numerous critics and made more than quadruple its budget at the box-office. Its legacy has carried out for the decade since its release (and I personally think it’s the greatest fantasy film ever made), yet del Toro’s career path didn’t go on the seamless trajectory one would have hoped for after the release of that crucial masterpiece.
After two years of effort on the project, Guillermo del Toro would end up abandoning the director’s chair on The Hobbit. After this, he faced even greater disappointment when Universal Studios refused to greenlight his adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness—a long-time dream project of his—due to its staggering production costs and his refusal to shoot the film for a PG-13 rating. Five years after the release of Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, Guillermo del Toro would finally direct another film with the summer blockbuster Pacific Rim—a financial hit if not a major critical favorite. Two years later, he followed that up with Crimson Peak. This return to gothic-horror was modestly successful at the box office but was shockingly pedestrian in comparison to the director’s usually highly-imaginative oeuvre.
So sure, Guillermo del Toro has been making lucrative gains these last few years, but those familiar with his earlier work would conceivably have hoped he’d have followed a more artistic progression after a universal triumph like Pan’s Labyrinth. This year, however, sees the release of del Toro’s The Shape of Water—which took home the coveted Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival—and it’s the first film he’s put out in over a decade that makes a firm (and mostly successful) attempt at being poetic.
Set in Baltimore during the early 1960s, the film focuses on Elisa Esposito, a female custodian who is rendered mute from a throat injury she received as a child. Lonely and desiring of a man in her life, she still finds companionship through her friend/neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her African-American co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Employed at a military lab, Elisa comes to discover that the lab is holding a humanoid sea-monster (played by the ever-costumed Doug Jones), whom she becomes interested in romantically. She decides to help the creature escape, especially after watching the cruelty it suffers at the hands of her superior—the potentially sociopathic Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).
It’s definitely an out-there premise, but like all of del Toro’s best work, it bears resemblance to that of a fairy tale, and there’s a considerable amount of self-awareness to it that keeps it from becoming maudlin. While the film pays homage to musicals and screwball comedies of Classical Hollywood with its whimsical flow and evocative set-pieces, it also is very contemporary in its views—including sex. Fans of Guillermo del Toro might be surprised to see how frank The Shape of Water is regarding sexuality (in fact, an audience member could confuse the film for a Disney film with all its bippity boppiness at first—that is up until we discover Elisa likes to pleasure herself while bathing), especially since it isn’t an area that his previous films had explored explicitly, but it certainly casts a sense of humanity on the film. The love scenes that Eliza has with the sea creature are in fact beautiful and remarkably some of the least-campy sequences in the film.
In fact, it may also come as a surprise to hear that The Shape of Water’s strongest card does not come from its spectacle or conceptual matters but instead from Sally Hawkins’s soulful performance. The English actress has had a career filled with memorable performances—starting as a muse for the pre-eminent British arthouse filmmaker Mike Leigh—yet she’s continued to be a wise selector of scripts after having made a more mainstream transition, including her award-nominated role in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. The Shape of Water tasks her to play a role that features almost no spoken dialogue, yet she comes off as nothing short then rapturous. Hawkins characteristics resonate with Elisa, as she is simultaneously beautiful yet mousy as well as hilarious yet sincere. To be honest, I’m not even sure if there is any chemistry to be spoken of between her and Doug Jones’s Amphibious Man (his costume may also be a bit too similar to the one he adorned in Hellboy), but Hawkins still carries every shot with her singular demeanor.
The presentation and performances definitely augment The Shape of Water’s material, as the film’s script isn’t so taut. The film has a host of subplots to it that are clearly products of del Toro’s affinity to genre hop (including one that features prolific character actor David Hewlett as a communist double-agent), and while it’s fun to see all these different scenarios (which offer no tonal conflict), they don’t quite come together as well as one would hope. In fact, the final act of the movie is a bit rushed yet still manages to entertain, if only because it relies more on Michael Shannon’s performance than actual story development. The last ten minutes of The Shape of Water finds the venerable character actor at his most unhinged.
While in another year, Colonel Strickland may have just have come off as another cartoonish villain, in 2017, the casually racist and lecherous military man could be seen as a lampoon on Trump’s America. With all the cultural discussion about how Trump’s administration has returned American values on diversity back to the days of The Civil Rights Movement (roughly the time period of the film), del Toro does make some subtle allusions to this throughout The Shape of Water, and it’s areas like this that makes the film comes off as semi-transgressive.
The Shape of Water isn’t quite the piece of art it aspires to be. It doesn’t hold the adult nuance or timeless thematic material that Pan’s Labyrinth’s did, and it often seems more poised as a gift for fanboy culture (the scene where Strickland's superior tells him he’ll be transported to an “alternate universe” seems particularly prescribed for the Comic-Con crowd). What it undoubtedly is, though, is a very entertaining movie—one that’s imagination is so potent it propels a sentiment that feels quite a bit like movie magic. While there have been better films to come out in 2017, it’s hard to think of one more crowd-pleasing than The Shape of Water, and del Toro’s fans should rest assured that he finally made another film at full creative stamina.
Watch the trailer for The Shape of Water!
Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon.