The Shape of Water Review: A Lyrical Monster Movie About What It Is To Be Human

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon

Director: Guillermo Del Toro

Screenplay: Guillermo Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor

Rating: 3.5 stars


Halfway through Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, an exasperated Giles (Richard Jenkins), in an attempt to dissuade his friend Elisa (Sally Hawkins) from rescuing the Amphibian Man, says, “It’s not even human”. She signs, “If we do nothing, neither are we.” The scene encapsulates the core idea of the film, of what it means to be human.

Elisa, a mute woman, works at an American aerospace research centre, where she comes across a secret experiment that involves an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones). The year is 1962 — the height of the Cold War — and the Americans are frustrated with Soviet achievements in space travel. Therefore, they are interested in studying whether the “creature” can be sent into outer space. Horrified at the torture the Amphibian Man is put through, she plans to steal him from the facility and set him free with the help of a considerate scientist, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), and her friends Giles and Zelda (Octavia Spencer). However, they need to defeat a monster on their way out — army veteran and security chief, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).

To explore the themes of humanity and bestiality, Del Toro weaves the plot with another monster horror film from 1954, Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, wherein Gill-Man yearns for the female protagonist. And hands become an effective device in order for him to dwell on the themes. Her hands are the first thing we see of Elisa as she goes through her meticulous routine — turning off the alarm clock, cooking, cleaning. As a mute, they are her source of communication; as a single woman, they are also her source of pleasure. She is a cleaning lady, but there is a softness to her touch — as there is about her eyes — which we see when she gingerly places her hand on the tank in which the Amphibian Man is brought in.

The Amphibian Man — the “other”, the supposed monster — is also introduced through his hands, much like his prototype from Arnold’s film. In a discussion amongst the scientists and Strickland, it is revealed that he was captured in the Amazonian forests, where he was worshipped as a river god. And as a god, he uses his hands — scales and webs included — to bless, to heal, and also to punish. His touch kindles a desire in Elisa, and brings hair back on Giles’ balding head. There is another set of hands intrinsic to this film. Del Toro has stated in several interviews that had this film been made in the year in which it is set, the Amphibian Man would certainly be the “monster”, and Strickland the hero. However, Strickland here is the very embodiment of the rottenness of humanity. He loses two fingers which are later stitched back to his hand, but turn gangrenous. He is without scruples, without soul, without love, who covers his wife’s mouth with his bleeding hand whilst fantasising about Elisa.


Additionally, the characters in the film are plagued by miscommunication and loneliness. Giles tends to stutter when nervous, Zelda is ignored by her husband, and Dr. Hoffstetler can speak two languages but his pleas remain unheard. Only Elisa and the Amphibian Man truly communicate, from heart to heart.

Another important element of The Shape of Water is its subversive fairy-tale theme. Subversive, because the “princess” is not pure or innocent in the Victorian sense of the term. She has desires and sexual urges, which she tends to every day. It is also a monster fairy tale which is not centred on the notion of transformation, à la Beauty and the Beast or The Princess and the Frog. In a dream-sequence, the narrative takes the form of a 40s musical, where Elisa imagines herself singing to her lover, but he remains the Amphibian Man; she accepts him as he is, without wishing for him to take a human form.

As the elemental god of river, he is the very embodiment — and thereby — the shape of water. Dan Lausten’s cinematography, with its use of steadicam and tracking shots complements this fluidity marvellously. Adding to the classic Hollywood musical tone of the film is Alexandre Desplat’s wonderfully dreamy background score. Michael Shannon, as always, is flawlessly villainous, and the supporting cast — Stuhlbarg, Spencer, and Jenkins — have each put in remarkable work resulting in characters with complex inner lives, which are not cardboard-cutout sidekicks. Sally Hawkins, without saying anything, speaks the loudest with her gestures and body language. In contrast with the complexity of Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water seems a little complacent and self-aware, as though Del Toro himself is shying away from the gloriously radical writing of the former. Nevertheless, the world he has created is visually rich and stunning, and deserving in entirety of the 13 Oscar nominations it has garnered.


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