Like all great romances, it began with a connection. He was raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, in an enthusiastically Catholic household. Was it the fixation on blood, death, and rebirth that steered his imagination in a certain direction? Perhaps, but who can say for sure? The only thing we do know is, starting from a very young age, Guillermo del Toro loved monsters.
Looking at his filmography, it’s not hard to believe. Every film he’s made, from the vampire tale Cronos to the lush Pan’s Labyrinth to the mechs versus kaiju Pacific Rim, there’s been a focus of some kind on creatures. However, del Toro isn’t the kind of filmmaker that dreams up gnarly looking beasties just because they’re cool looking. Even in films like Mimic, where his giant cockroaches kill the hell out of the human characters, del Toro always has a degree of sympathy for them.
That passion for the freakish even bleeds through the projects he’s almost made. There’s a legendarily large list of films that del Toro has almost made,* and at one point he was developing a remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. True to form, this iteration would have seen Gill-Man fall in love with the female lead. You will not be surprised to learn that studio executives rejected his pitch, probably at a rate of speed so high that it broke the sound barrier.
That idea stuck with del Toro for years, rolling around within his head. I suspect it was one of those concepts that required both distance and maturity, and a director in their 30’s or even 40’s might not have been able to properly articulate it. Now in his 50’s, del Toro has gained both the professional and life experience to do it justice. His film, The Shape of Water, is both very similar to everything he’s done so far, and profoundly different.
Set in the early 1960’s, we’re introduced to Elisa (Sally Hawkins). She’s a bright and perceptive woman, yet she’s mute due to a childhood injury. Life is highly structured for her, and she works a janitorial night shift at the secretive Occam Aerospace Research Center. This mysterious facility is a place of seemingly endless underground tunnels with scientists scuttling hither and yon. At least Elisa isn’t alone. Zelda (Octavia Spencer) works alongside her, and she’s as much of a chatty Cathy as Elisa is silent.
One day, things change. Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives from South America, bringing with him an “asset.” He’s a casual racist and sadist, reads The Power of Positive Thinking, and carries a massive cattle prod he affectionately refers to as an “Alabama howdee-do.” Exactly why is he carrying around a damn cattle prod, you might reasonably ask? Well, that’s because the “asset” is an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones**), who was originally worshipped as a god.
General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) is in charge of the project. The chief scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to study the creature. Strickland enjoys torturing it, and is perfectly comfortable with its eventual vivisection. But Elisa sees it, and is fascinated by it. Covertly, she begins to get to know the Amphibian Man. She offers hard-boiled eggs, plays Benny Goodman on a portable record player, and teaches sign language.
A bond is formed between them, and soon she thinks of it as a him. Elisa confides to Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted and quietly miserable gay man and her best friend, that she’s falling in love with the Amphibian Man. She believes her feelings are reciprocated. Something must be done.
We talk about suspension of disbelief all the time. You might be able to believe in an intergalactic group of Jedi, or a wall-crawling teenager. For some people, the idea of a woman and a Gill-Man falling in love will be a bridge too far. This is one of those situations with art, however, where it truthfully doesn’t matter if you can get behind it or not. Guillermo del Toro believes in it, and he passionately believes in the concept of marginalized people like a mute janitor, a gay man, or a fish creature finding love and a place to belong.
He’s made a beautiful looking film that doesn’t always quite work. The first half, particularly the sweet courtship between Amphibian Man, has the strongest sequences and visuals. The color green is associated with the future, and we see that with the muted coloring of the creature and the shades of emerald in Elisa’s small apartment. There’s a dreamlike, slightly surreal mood weaving through the film. It occasionally goes too far, and the swooning romance becomes annoyingly twee. The second half feels a little choppy, and the pacing is inconsistent, so things lurch from going too slow to too fast to just right. Still, del Toro hasn’t made a film this overtly romantic before, and while it gets to be a bit much sometimes, we could do with a little romance these days.
Del Toro co-wrote the script with Vanessa Taylor, and it’s perceptive and filled with strong characters. I loved the detail of the main character being mute, and the majority of dialogue comes from a black woman and a gay man, both of whom would have been heavily marginalized during the 1960’s. That theme fits, since they are a group of people cursed to be born in a less enlightened time.
This film is filled with wonderful performances and the cast plays to their strengths. Is it a bad thing that Michael Shannon is again playing a bug-eyed maniac? Probably not, and I do enjoy his piercing intensity. Doug Jones is a frequent del Toro collaborator, and he reminds me of Ron Perlman in that both actors are often covered in latex effects and still deliver strong and sympathetic performances. Jones also has the additional challenge of having no intelligible dialogue, so his performance has to come entirely through the positioning of his body. He portrays the Amphibian Man as a sympathetic and intelligent being that’s also entirely true to his nature.
However, two performances truly stand out. Richard Jenkins is a That Guy, a supporting actor who’s been around for decades and who elevates material with quiet and thoughtful acting.*** As Giles, he nurses an unrequited love for the counter guy at his favorite restaurant, and he constantly buys pie just to have a chance to be with him. Giles is a strong role. He’s a man right on the edge of giving up, and his friendship with Elisa, his art, and his love for musicals and cats are the only things that keep him going. Jenkins role is deeply melancholy, but there’s a puckish sense of humor there as well.
Allegedly, Guillermo del Toro wrote the role of Elisa specifically for Sally Hawkins and pitched it to her at the Golden Globes while hammered. He was quoted as saying, “I was drunk, and it’s not a movie that makes you sound less drunk.” Good thing Hawkins agreed to it, since she’s terrific. Many actors would treat playing a mute person as a gimmick, and modulate their acting to an insufferable degree. Sally
Hawkins is too smart for that. Her Elisa is perceptive, practical, and has desires and agency. When she sees something she wants, whether it’s a new pair of shoes or the Amphibian Man, she formulates a plan and goes for it. I also love the chemistry between Hawkins and Jones, despite their almost total lack of dialogue.
The Shape of Water might not be your cup of briny and chemically-treated seawater. Guillermo del Toro has made a film that’s sometimes overlong and occasionally goes off the rails. He’s also made a film that’s the vision of a certain person, a vision driven by love. Art depends on a specific point of view. The Shape of Water is flawed, but there’s no denying it’s art.
*He nearly made an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s In the Mouth of Madness, starring Tom Cruise and produced by James Cameron. I would have given my pinky finger to have seen Cruise go mad while encountering extradimensional horrors from beyond the stars.
**For clarification, not the newly elected Senator from Alabama, but wouldn’t it be great if they were the same person?
***One of the great Jenkins roles is the sweetly dumb deputy Chicory in Bone Tomahawk.