#44 — The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)
The path always led to The Shape of Water for Guillermo del Toro. Across a career that begin firmly in the horror genre before expanding to other hybrids, practically of his own concoction, the Mexican filmmaker tirelessly demonstrated an affection for monsters. By the relentless beauty of his craft, with even the most sordid and salacious fictions dressed up the the highest quality visual trappings, del Toro also made it clear that he adores the movies themselves. Each new feature was a gift lobbed back to his boyhood self, beaming in a theater seat at the undulating lights before him, a portion of a promise fulfilled. And The Shape of Water as like the totality of that promise poured into a single film, with the significant presence of a grand old movie palace as a setting to put a pressed-wax stamp of authority on the whole endeavor.
Set in the early nineteen-sixties, as the Cold War felt like it was at least turning warm and drive-in–friendly B movies were starting to fade from favor, The Shape of Water sets its heart in the slender hands of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works on the overnight cleaning crew at a top secret U.S. military laboratory. When a humanoid sea creature (played by longtime del Toro ringer Doug Jones) is brought in and held in captivity, Elisa grows intrigued and then enthralled. She eventually enlists her friends — a fellow cleaner (Octavia Spencer) and an illustrator neighbor (Richard Jenkins, who’s absolutely wonderful in the role) — in her scheming to free the dashing amphibian from the clutches of the nefarious agency, especially the ruthless, desperate Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, in full Michael Shannon flower). Suffused with romance, bounding with adventure, and clanging with sci-fi inventiveness, The Shape of Water is like the dream that swirls up after a marathon day of movie watching, traipsing across genres with every new set of reels hauled into the projector room.
The scaled stud at the film’s center inescapably calls to mind the sleek creature who long ago patrolled his home Black Lagoon, and other elements similarly echo past achievements of the silver screen. But it is the always evident glee of del Toro that prevents this borrowing from ever devolving into pastiche or, worse, the sort of jabbering fanboy tedium that causes Quentin Tarantino’s various cinematic clipper ships to take on so much fetid water. Rather than seeking to impress with his knowledge and associated ability to replicate what he loves, del Toro is informed by humility. He simply wants the audience to love these treasures, too. And the best way to make that happen is to share the treasures, holding them up to the light and admiring their beauty right alongside the other spectators. With The Shape of Water, del Toro casts a spell, but the most winning quality of the feat is the way he somehow places himself among the bedazzled. He makes magic not to deceive and dupe, but because he himself wants to revel in the delight of the expertly constructed illusions.