|Scene from The Shape of Water|
Monsters are scary. It's a simple rule of life that all narrative forms have accepted as true. So why are we fascinated by them then? In director Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, he updates the classic fairy tale structure in order to answer that question, using Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) as an allegory for interracial love. He presupposes that monsters are misunderstood, choosing to borrow an ethos dating back to James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein. With lavish productions and an amazing performance by Sally Hawkins as Eliza, del Toro has created a film that not only humanizes monster movies, but finds the tender heart and longing that make them not too different from you or I. It's a powerful film, and one that should appeal to fans of monster movies that do more than horrify. This one sympathizes so perfectly that it becomes less of a horror movie and more of a supernatural Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. It may be simple at heart, but it only adds to the profundity of its text.
There's plenty to separate Eliza from her peers. For starters, she is the film's only mute character; forced to communicate through other peoples' voices. In that way, she cannot be her authentic self, never addressing her needs without someone processing it first. There's a loneliness to her, even as her social life includes a friendly landlord (Richard Jenkins) and sassy coworker (Octavia Spencer). As the only character to get subtitles throughout the film (save for a few Russian-language sequences), she feels singled out and is unable to make a difference. After all, she is a mere janitor working the graveyard shift at a super secret lab where Amphibian Man is brought. He is the only character to have it worse than Eliza in that he's mistreated, never speaking in a comprehensible language. His physicality is what defines his interactions with people, and he is a helpless prisoner most of the time.
The score by Alexandre Desplat is the perfect indicator of the film's emotional arc. There is a Parisian quality to the compositions, often infused with traces of eerie and alien sounds. It's a melancholy sound that distorts the imagery that hearkens back to classic horror movie set pieces. These labs are big, metallic, and impersonal. They harbor no emotion, which makes the search for it all the more difficult. In those walls lies Amphibian Man, unable to escape back to his homeland; to a place of safety. He is melancholic without Eliza, who brings him eggs and Benny Goodman records. Together, they are the embodiment of the niche forbidden couple; a Tony and Marie from West Side Story, a couple who is unable to be together because of their differences. In this case, it's more than physical. Del Toro is more obsessed with what's literally not spoken, what can be understood in the eyes of these two strangers. Even at their most connected, they are melancholic because they cannot speak the same language, much like how the Parisian score intentionally feels disconnected from the American setting.
What is probably the most shocking element of the film is theoretically its most obvious: this is a romance between species. Eliza and Amphibian Man exist on two different planes. Del Toro juxtaposes this obstacle constantly by playing with imagery, creating a world where both temporarily exist in harmony. But this isn't a PG-13 monster movie. It's a full on R-Rated movie where fingers are broken, profanity is spoken, and features mild sex scenes. It is provocative in ways that The Creature From the Black Lagoon (a clear influence on character design) could never be. Amphibian Man isn't a predator trying to kill. He is simply trying to be loved, and Eliza fulfills his needs. It isn't an exploitative one, but something that puts them at bliss amid the inability to fully exist either on land or in sea.
The film even borrows from old Mark Sandrich-style musicals, evoking the joy that comes with a childlike sense of love. The film is cinematically rich with diverse reference points from horror to musicals to film noir, and del Toro has mastered a way to make them fit next to each other without intruding. In that way, it's a masterpiece of fusion. He is a director whose whole life owes some credit to monster movies, but this is one of the few times where he feels like he has exceeded incredible character designs. He has placed his mentality into classic Hollywood cinema, finding ways to capture deeper emotional depths and make the film as beautiful as possible. It may come across as indulgent, but the romanticism outshines any ill intent and replaces it with a fairy tale about outcasts bonding over their world status. It's a familiar story, but del Toro has found a way to make it meaningful.
A lot of credit should be given to Doug Jones, whose work as Amphibian Man is likely to be one of the most overlooked performances of 2017. He has always been good at prosthetic-heavy roles, but manages to emote without saying coherent dialogue. His physicality captures a creature not from land. He manages to be funny and heartfelt, personifying a misunderstood creature in need of comfort that even the love of Eliza can't provide. It's a doomed romance for sure, but the prosthetic work allows his facial region to capture any emotion necessary. His unique blinking style and his webbed fingers are all aspects that make him immediately memorable and iconic. He is one of del Toro's greatest creations as a visual artist. The only conflict comes more from his story, which never feels like more than conventional love story material. While Eliza has an incredible arc, Amphibian Man's journey is more straightforward, and it's the one weakness of the story.
With all of this said, The Shape of Water is del Toro's best film since Pan's Labyrinth. He has managed to find the humanity in his monsters by suggesting not that they're scary, but that they are deserving of respect. Maybe his approach is too risque for some, but even that feels provocative in a way that helps the film stand out. He uses his style effectively throughout the entire film, and manages to create a journey that explores how bigotry tears everyone apart and how to overcome this issue. Because of how it approaches the subject, it's a film unlikely to be forgotten, which is saying something from the creator of Hellboy, Crimson Peak, and The Devil's Backbone. This is evidence that he still has the power to reinvent something familiar, making it more than just jump scares and cheap gore. It can be a profound story about love and understanding, which is important no matter what you look like.