"Monsters are the Patron Saints of Imperfection"
Guillermo del Toro
Del Toro treats them very seriously, be they friend or foe. And his monsters become us, even if his characters don't become monsters.
Monsters are a passion of his, but not a hobby. And when he considers a monster—particularly those featured in the films of his youth—there is always the embedded thought: "What are THEY feeling?" Most monster movies consider the feelings of the folks in the film who are like us, the better that we might understand their reactions when they encounter something strange and not like us. There is kinship there. Entertainment value.
And tribalism. But, rather than consider the "us against them" mentality that most monster movies (like his own Pacific Rim) encourage, del Toro will think about what the monster is feeling. He was thinking about his own reactions to The Creature from the Black Lagoon when he went to Universal Studios more than ten years ago to propose creating a remake with more sympathy for the "Creature." Universal, who was planning its own ways of screwing up their classic monsters, turned him down cold.
One hopes their their lawyers aren't monsters, and see his new film, The Shape of Water, for what it is—an extraordinarily well-done gene-splicing of Creature and "Beauty and the Beast"—rather than as a fishing expedition for a copyright infringement suit. Frankly, they don't have a case. The Shape of Water is its own magical animal, far removed from, and more highly evolved than, its source.
It starts, appropriately, in a dream-like state underwater with a narrator still trying to absorb his tale of "the princess without a voice, a love lost, and the monster who tried to destroy it all." The narrator is Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is a commercial artist who lives in a garret above a movie theater.* "The princess without a voice" is his across-the-hall neighbor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), mute since birth, who works as a cleaning woman for an organization that looks suspiciously like Hellboy's BPRD** but is the Occam Aerospace Research Center. She has a quick daily routine at home and usually shows up to work barely on time after a cross-town bus-ride, where she is saved a place to clock-in by her friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) where they clean the facility at night.
One night, an elaborate container housing "what may well be the most sensitive asset ever housed in this facility" is brought into OARC, along with its caretaker Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who captured the "asset" in a South American river. The "asset" is an amphibian creature, once worshiped as a god by the Amazonian natives, but Strickland is less enamored of it. OARC is interested in it for space research, but Strickland's military masters see no point in keeping it around to study it. They, like Strickland, are more intrigued in vivisection, seeing what makes (or made) the thing tick,,,once it stops ticking. Strickland doesn't see it so much as an asset as an affront.
But, two people have an interest in keeping it alive: Elisa sees it as an exotic beautiful thing, and she visits it regularly, feeding it hard-boiled eggs and playing it music; new OARC scientist Bob Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg...the ubiquitous Michael Stuhlbarg) sees it as a waste of a scientific anomaly. But, he has another reason...Bob's real name is Dimitri, and he's a Soviet agent who has infiltrated OARC to find out what he can about the research going on there. Bob/Dimitri's Soviet contacts are intrigued by the creature and have no idea why the Americans would want it...but, if THEY want it, the Russians want it, too.
On the flip-side, if the Russian CAN't have it, they want Dimitri to kill it. But, he IS conflicted as a scientist. And when Elisa discovers that the military has plans to destroy it, she makes a decision—not on her shift, and she begins an elaborate...and dangerous...plan to creature-nap the asset. But, Giles is hesitant; he has his own issues and is reluctant to do anything that might draw more attention to himself.
It's a fairy tale, but like most of del Toro's work it is not a complacent one. Here it is the task of the princess to save, rather than be saved. And the monster? Well, it's basically "corporate man." If The Shape of Water has a weakness it's that it's a little heavy-handed on the heavy, which is Strickland. Shannon is up to the task of playing it, of course, but Strickland is such a compendium of every perverted instinct he could probably have been portrayed as a studio head. He's insensitive to beyond the point of cruelty, he's prejudiced, elitist, a potential rapist, uses the Bible—or his interpretation of it—as his justification for his view of the creature ("W're created in the Lord's image. You don't think that's what the Lord looks like, do you?") and he has the audacity to be reading "The Power of Positive Thinking." If you want a comparison, look to the Nazi father of Pan's Labyrinth, but, there the ending is cathartic—you want him to suffer and he does. Strickland, not so much, not to my satisfaction, anyway. If you're going to consider how much the monster feels, there's no much feeling there. Someone so insufferable should suffer more, I think.
But, that's my big fish to fry with the film. Del Toro has made something gorgeous, taking some inspiration from Michael Powell for his vision of things. and filling it with the strong visuals needed to communicate the feelings of someone mute. He's aided, immeasurably, by Sally Hawkins here, who does the sort of effervescent acting that one rarely finds outside of silent pictures, one that incorporates body language, rhythm, even dance. Compared to what everybody else is doing, weakened by actually having to express themselves, Hawkins is a shining light throughout the film that draws you in.
And as his creature, del Toro has again tapped Doug Jones, maybe the least recognizable actor in films...even less than Andy Serkis. Jones played all of the creatures—distinctively—in Pan's Labyrinth, as well as Abe Sapien in both Hellboy movies, and his body-acting instincts as the creature, as much as we see of him, are stately and elegant (even during a black and white dance sequence) despite being done in full prosthetics—not even motion capture. One hopes, for his sake, that they kept the water warm.
It is not a movie for little kids (I shouldn't have to say it, but I'm thinking of those parents who dragged their children to Downsizing), ironic given that a viewing of The Creature from the Black Lagoon at 13 inspired it. But, if one is given to romantic fantasy with a harder edge, it's a great movie to see.
When I think of her all that comes to mind is a poem, made of just a few truthful words, whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago: '
* Judging by the movie starting its run at the theater—The Story of Ruth—and that John Glenn is seen on television, the year must be 1960.