Year of Release: 2017 Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Doug Jones.
Last Sunday in church, the Gospel reading was the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God for, among other things, casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. This past Sunday I also watched The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s latest dark fairytale in which fantasy and myth give a voice to the voiceless, empower the weak, and cast down arrogant, powerful villains.
In The Shape of Water, del Toro literally creates a tale to give a voice to the voiceless. Sally Hawkins plays the mute Elisa, a cleaning woman working at a government lab with her good friend and black co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa lives above an old movie theater with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an out-of-work artist with reasons of his own to be downcast. As the film takes place in the early ‘60’s, this trio of characters all has reasons to feel rejected by society.
When the lab acquires a mysterious amphibious man from Amazon (Doug Jones), who is guarded by the sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), Elisa sees him as not as a foreign dangerous species, but as another reject of society for being different, as she is. Soon Elisa and the creature are bonding over hard-boiled eggs, LP’s, and sign language when she manages to sneak into the containment facility unobserved.
Being a fairytale, the story beats for The Shape of Water are broad archetypes, and at times some of them are a little too broad. Michael Shannon’s villainous Strickland could easily be construed as too cartoonish, especially from his first interaction with Elisa and Zelda as they are cleaning the men’s restroom, where he flaunts his odd hygiene habits (or lack thereof). Giles suffers several rejections, in both his professional and personal life, some of which are not set up particularly well. And the ease with which the central plot point is executed would be unlikely.
However, nitpicking those plot details forgets that this story is a fairytale, and it is meant to symbolize an exaltation of the lowly. Therefore, that is what happens, and del Toro’s filming of it splendidly gorgeous. Nearly every scene is saturated with greens and blues, making the screen shimmer with an iridescence that reminds us of the mysterious beauty of the creature, breathing life and joy into all of the world. The only exception is Strickland’s home which is permeated by a harsh, stale yellow, showing how thoroughly he has cut himself off from joy and compassion, to the point that his life and soul fester like the finger injury he sustains.
Del Toro also finds joy in old movies from 1930’s Hollywood. Giles wishes to use cinema as a means of escapism, so he can forget the civil rights movement and his closeted sexuality, both of which cause him too much discomfort. However, Elisa’s attitude toward the old pictures shows how fantasy can be used to uplift, inspire, and communicate what words fail to say, which an exquisite black and white sequence demonstrates.
Sally Hawkins is incredible as Elisa, masterfully conveying a wide range of emotions with her facial expressions and sign language. The scene where she explains to Richard Jenkins’ sympathetic but incredulous Giles why she has to rescue the creature from the laboratory is one of the most moving of the year. Octavia Spencer plays off her silence perfectly as a supportive friend and coworker, effortlessly changing her demeanor depending on who is nearby.
The stories of Samson and Ruth are used as two recurring Biblical allegories, both of which are interwoven with the main theme of casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. The foreigner who leaves her home behind for something greater receives untold blessings, and the philistine who thinks he’s invincible as God’s anointed is struck down by his own prisoner.
By setting the film in the early ‘60’s with the civil rights movement occurring in the background, del Toro is able to give a voice to multiple groups of people who would have been rejected by society as “lesser” at that time: women, blacks, gays, and the disabled. That decision makes the film feel applicable to any time, even as parts of it are clearly a rebuttal to America’s current administration. More remarkably, there are two villains in the film who attempt to crush the meek in their thirst for power: the nationalistic American capitalists and the communist Soviets. Michael Stuhlbarg’s Soviet spy who defects to a greater cause demonstrates the narrow but noble line of rejecting two opposite and equal evils.
Finally, the epilogue is practically a prayer one could say to God. Even though we cannot see Him, we seek Him, finding Him where we least expect.
Ever since seeing Pan’s Labyrinth about a decade ago, I have looked forward to seeing del Toro’s newest films. Regardless of the narrative weaknesses that often plague his screenplays, he is an astonishingly talented visual stylist, and he uses wonderfully beautiful imagery to tell his stories in a way that is inviting and mesmerizing. As an allegory about recognizing the value of everyone who has been overlooked and denied their worth, where the simplest joy filled moments are celebrated in spectacular fashion, The Shape of Water is del Toro’s best film in over a decade.
Personal Recommendation: A-
Content Advisory: Semi-graphic sexual content with nudity, some gruesome violence, occasional profanities and obscenities. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment