Elisa is voiceless. She’s a humble woman who works a lowly janitorial job in a government research facility in the 1960s. Her entire sphere is controlled by ominous men. And as if the deck wasn’t already stacked high enough, she is also mute. Literally and figuratively, she isn’t and cannot be heard. Her friends are silenced too, in their own ways – a black co-worker who understands the world’s ingrained racism and misogyny but who dutifully stays in her lane, and a gay neighbor who would rather turn off reality and watch classic musicals on TV. In a regressive world, they are all some form of monster. And in an instant, another monster enters their lives and forces them out of their mutual silence.
That’s The Shape of Water, which itself plays like a musical without the choreographed numbers (well, except for one), except this musical isn’t a distraction from the ugliness of the real world – it stares the ugliness down, defiant and resolute. There may be no lyrics, but my goodness, does it sing – the film is at once an aching celebration of humanity and a fierce rebuke of those who lack it. Guillermo del Toro specializes in fairy tales in which inherent beauty is encroached upon by the rot of darkness, romance and idealism through the harrowing filter of gothic horror. Here he perfectly encapsulates his worldview into a sumptuous coalescence of thematic obsessions – wonder in the face of fear, love breaking through the shackles of hate, finding one’s soul buried under layers of pain.
Elisa is the personification of all those themes, ever under the thumb of sneering superiors in the government lab where she and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) mop the floors, cleaning up the messes of men. Sally Hawkins, one of our most brightly expressive actresses, plays Elisa as a woman who is invisible to most, which makes her a sponge for her surroundings. She sees and hears all, and is curious about everything. That curiosity leads her to the saltwater tank that contains the U.S. government’s latest classified asset: a mysterious aquatic creature recovered from the Amazon. Sinister government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) aims to put the creature through a ringer of violent experiments before eventually killing it for additional research. Elisa, however, sees in this “beast” something of a kindred spirit – isolated, misunderstood, and unable to communicate his pain.
On its face, the story is deceptively simple and almost too-niche: woman falls in love with amphibious monster. Yet through that simple oddity swirls a flurry of complex implications. The film places its characters in the crosshairs of prejudice, an environment of ‘60s-era picturesque “family values” that was the surface disguise for the resentments of racial segregation, ingrained sexism, and outward homophobia. In a world where so many were treated as less than, it’s revelatory that only the presence of a supernatural organism is enough to raise ire. Of course, that’s the point: the Amphibian Man (embodied by longtime del Toro collaborator Doug Jones) is the most extreme representation of “Other,” the thing that exposes the inner biases of even those who are discriminated against, and eventually reveals who is truly human, and who is truly a monster.
Del Toro, ever the master of magic realism, paints in alternate strokes of pleasure and pain, tension and tranquility. At varying turns, The Shape of Water moves in flourishes of innocent comedy, riveting thriller, sensuous romance, and unsettling horror, but always remains a whimsical exploration of humanity, those who gracefully embrace it or scornfully reject it. The screenplay, by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, toes the line between wonder and dread, but is delivered with the lightest touch; even as the specter of doom hovers over the proceedings, we always feel as though we are in the warmest of embraces. Warmth defines del Toro’s point of view – he is an emotional maestro and Elisa and her Amphibian Man are his lead vocalists. After all, love and acceptance sing louder than words ever could.