Guillermo del Toro’s fish man romance reckons with the heart of America
The protagonist of The Shape of Water doesn’t speak. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is mute. She lives in an apartment above a movie theater in 1960s Baltimore. She works in the cleaning staff of an underground government facility. Her routine is interrupted by the arrival of Agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), who has brought with him a captured amphibian man from the jungles of South America. Elisa forms a connection with the strange fish creature, and once she learns of Strickland’s intentions, hatches a plan to free the fish man from government captivity.
The Shape of Water can be most broadly defined as a fairy tale: a little riff on the genre that mashes up Beauty and the Beast with The Little Mermaid. This is, at least, what gives the film its structure. But it is also a story that attempts to reckon with the heart of America. In the age of “Make America Great Again,” the film casts the nation’s idealized past as a nightmare of monstrous proportions, ultraconservative ideals thrown into sharp relief against a romance that transcends all difference. It is a fairy tale filtered through a more grown-up lens, with characters that struggle against a more recognizable ugliness.
There’s actually a lot going on beyond the central fairy tale romance of the film. The supporting characters are all pretty much given their own full narratives to fill out. There is Giles, Elisa’s closeted ad man neighbor, who is looking for his own little slice of romance. There is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa’s co-worker, who we hear getting disenchanted about her marriage. There is Dr. Hoffstetler, the unlikely ally living a double life. And there is Strickland himself, who the movie follows home, where he gets to live out the photo album version of the American dream. It is in this diversity of stories that the movie reveals its openness of heart, its generosity of spirit. Even as it casts characters as heroes and villains, it finds the time to detail the specific peculiarities of their existence.
And the film does get peculiar. This is, after all, the story of a woman that falls in love with a fish man. The film’s full commitment to that idea sets the stage for everything else that’s going on. Because the film speaks most eloquently when it makes the case for this odd romance. It speaks of compassion and difference with an earnestness that belies the fantastic approach. The creature at the center of this film may not be human in a technical sense, but the emotions that the film imparts through Elisa’s relationship with it feel deeply human anyway.
A lot of this is due to the incredible central performance from Sally Hawkins. Hawkins practically dances through this movie, her character’s thoughts conveyed through movement. And even without saying anything, she makes it easy to understand what her character sees in the fish man. Doug Jones plays the amphibian man inside a rubber suit, and he leans into the alien qualities of the creature. Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg are all equally wonderful in this movie. We’ve seen Michael Shannon play this kind of role before, and he handles it with his typical aplomb.
The Shape of Water is to put it simply, wonderful. It would be worth recommending for the images that it puts together alone, with Guillermo del Toro displaying his usual visual flair, creating dramatic frames that feel imbued with magic. But its appeal goes far beyond how it looks. This is, after all, a movie that speaks directly about appearances, that urges for an understanding of otherness in an age where we all seem to be going backward in time. Its magic doesn’t just lie in the fantasies that it contrives, but in the tougher, grown-up realities that intrude into this fairy tale milieu. In the intermingling of these seemingly disparate elements, it finds something indelible.
Philbert Ortiz Dy has been reviewing movies professionally since 2007, and has thus dedicated his life to being yelled at by fans of literally everyone. He is currently the Online Editor of Rogue.ph. Yell at him on Twitter at @philbertdy.