There’s a sequence somewhere in the middle of director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro’s latest, The Shape of Water, in which the world turns black-and-white for just a couple of minutes. I won’t spoil what the moment in question involves, but upon seeing the film a second time recently, I had this desire to see it entirely in shades of gray because, in many way, Elisa Esposito (a mute played exquisitely by Sally Hawkins) lives—and hides in—a black-and-white world.
Set in and around Baltimore in 1963, The Shape of Water introduces us to Elisa, a mute woman who has a routine that centers around her overnight shift at a military research facility, where she and her best female friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as part of the cleaning crew. But Elisa also sets aside a little time each day to check in on her best male friend, her gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an artist in the field of advertising. They both live above a giant movie palace, which is our first clue that the world of make-believe suits Elisa more than the harsh realities of the real world. She and Giles often watch old movies on television (although color TVs were introduced to the mass market in the mid-1950s, costs didn’t come down enough for them to sell in mass quantities until the mid-1960s; so in all likelihood, Giles’ set was black and white).
In what at first may feel like an invasive detail, we also discover that Elisa sets aside a couple of minutes as part of her morning routine to masturbate in her bathtub—she sets her egg timer as she hard boils a couple of eggs; when it rings, she’s done in the tub. Elisa still finds values in all forms of life’s pleasures, including the physical kind. She’s a woman who seeks out isolated moments in her day where she can dance a quick two-step, smile about it, and move on. Hawkins’ sly, knowing smile belies an otherwise mousy demeanor.
Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor never let us forget where in time we are. This is the Cold War. Images of the Vietnam War are on the news each night (Giles quickly turns them off in favor of a favorite musical); there are quick but painful reminders that there are still many places, even in a city like Baltimore, where anyone who isn’t white likely isn’t welcome. And as for Giles being gay, he knows to bury that deep from the world outside his apartment building. We’re also living in a world of paranoia and secrets, both of which are a response to some vague fear/hatred of the Soviet Union, whose spies are presumed to be everywhere. And into this classified environment enters an amphibious creature (referred to only as the Asset and played by Del Toro regular Doug Jones) that can walk upright and communicate to a certain degree.
It just so happens that Elisa and Zelda are in charge of cleaning the lab where the creature is housed and guarded under the watchful eye of the tyrannical Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, the acting world’s shorthand for “scary, creepy dude”). I couldn’t help but assign a bit of wish fulfillment to Strickland as being a continuation of Shannon’s FBI character in “Boardwalk Empire.” There’s a certain similarity in the way he adheres to protocol (until he doesn’t), and the way he refuses to allow emotion to interfere with a possible threat.
Early in the film, the creature bites off two of his fingers. They are put back on surgically, but whether or not they will re-attach successfully or simply fester, become septic, and turn black becomes a metaphor for Strickland’s soul. Will he see the beauty in keeping this unique creature (said to have been brought stateside from South America, where he was worshipped as a god) alive, or is he more concerned with keeping its secrets out of Russian hands? Michael Stuhlbarg is on hand as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, a scientist at the facility and seemingly the sole advocate for keeping the Asset alive.
But while the creature is in captivity, Elisa takes advantage of every chance she can get to use her mastery of sign language to teach it words, as well as feed it and play it her favorite music. When she gets wind that the Asset may be killed, she devises a plan to break him out and store him at her place (in her surprisingly spacious tub) until a coming storm dumps enough rain in a nearby canal to drop him in so he can swim to freedom. And don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything. The breakout sequence comes at about the halfway point of the film, so there’s still a lot of unexpected plot before the end.
The Shape of Water isn’t a direct homage to Del Toro’s love of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but the way Jones maneuvers and carries himself is somewhat reminiscent of the Gill-man. But lest we forget, this movie is at its core a love story. Elisa lives in a world of outcasts, and the Asset is the one that seems to connect with her on a spiritual level. He actually possesses a few traits that the scientists never discover, but Elisa and her friends uncover simply because they are kind to him. He wasn’t worshipped as a god for nothing. And while there is bound to be some giggling when we start to realize just how connected Elisa and her Merman are going to get, the sheer beauty and grace of their bond are what keep things from becoming ridiculous.
My only real quibble with The Shape of Water is Shannon’s performance, which starts out as mildly exaggerated and, by the climax, balloons into operatic villain times 20. If there had been even the slightest amount of dialing back on Shannon’s part, I might not have been bothered by it. But watching him “play evil,” while always a treat, is a bit on the nose here. There are so many other great actors here doing tremendously subtle and delicate things along the way, I can’t knock Shannon’s work too much, since it does seem to work in tandem with the other performances.
There are so many ways to call a film beautiful, and The Shape of Water is certainly that. But it’s also a powerful treatise on loneliness, isolation, and the lengths that we will go to in order to combat both. Sometimes, this results in love; other times, it takes us down a dark path simply because there are people there who will relate to us and call us heroic or special. Still other times, it can lead to a miracle, and The Shape of Water is indeed something of a cinematic miracle—the kind that Del Toro has given us over the years to the point where I’m starting to feel spoiled.