Every now and then a work of cinema arrives in theaters that completely challenges one's conception of what a film can be. A groundbreaking technical and thematic masterpiece, Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro accomplishes something that on paper seems impossible; what is essentially a comedic Cold War body horror musical romance between a mute woman and a mermaid. Not only does the modern master of movie monsters blend such an eclectic variety of genres into a single storyline, but he also does so without any sense of convolution or confusion, exhibiting a technical mastery that allows the film to seamlessly flow between its fantastical elements and social realism as well as stand as a work of art on its own. What Del Toro's latest film offers is not merely a stylistic spectacle, but also a thoughtful meditation on the nature of love and its ultimate lack of boundaries.
Before directing my appraisals towards the film's exceptional ensemble performances, thematic resonance and technical ingenuity, I feel it necessary to discuss what's on the surface. The film's production design is, simply put, outstanding. Set within the cultural bubble of early 1960s Baltimore, you can tell del Toro feels a genuine love for the aesthetic of the era, between the beauty of the grandiose operatic cinema to the humorously polite manner in which the characters converse with one another. This is contrasted by the grim color palette of the facility that Eliza (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work in, a white male-dominated hierarchy in which minorities are abused like slaves. Even outside of the facility, del Toro never shies away from the darkness behind this maintained superficial beauty. Racism, sexism and homophobia are ever present as shop owners reject minorities to preserve their all-white family aesthetic and Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon) exerts his dominance over the wife of his nuclear family in a truly sickening way. However, unlike most period pieces, there is no protest or fight for change. The superficial world remains solid through every horrible injustice committed, for these characters live in the 60s, where there is an understanding (or at least a belief) that things won't change. The characters accept these injustices for it's all they can do, strengthening and almost excusing the central interspecies love story so that it resonates all the more deeply.
From a technical perspective, the film truly mimics the element of its title. It's camera-work floats towards and around its characters while its transitions flow into one another like water. Del Toro maintains such a rhythmic pace via his use of editing, usually cutting on sound to craft a film that is as auditory as it is visual. The film's ensemble of is just as stunning. Against the backdrop of the 1960s del Toro's protagonists consist of different social outcasts, placing the authoritative white male in the role of an antagonist who takes full advantage of his societal superiority complex. Octavia Spencer as Zelda (Eliza's black co-worker) and Richard Jenkins as Giles (Eliza's gay neighbor) provide much of the film's comedic relief through their simultaneous embodiment and subversion of the era's stereotypes. While one could argue that their roles of the closeted gay confidante and the black maid are cliché, both characters display a strong awareness for their prejudiced status, with both resolving to disobey the conventions society has imposed on them; a decision that sets them apart from most portrayals of 1960s minorities. Michael Shannon offers another compelling performance as an abusive sociopath, and some of his actions (such as the aforementioned scene with his wife) impressively disgust in a world in which audiences are so desensitized to violence and on-screen abuse.
Supporting characters aside, the standout of this film is without question Sally Hawkins, whose performance as a mute woman forces upon her the unique challenge of making an audience empathize with her in spite of a lack of speech. She does this through her playfulness; her love of art, particularly music and musicals, the way she tap dances her way to work when no one is watching, and palpable emotions that require no voice to express. Her sign language offers one of the film's most spectacular visuals, and del Toro knows this, choosing to place the subtitles as close to her hands as possible so as not to detract too much attention.
Though more attention could have been diverted to Doug Jones as the Asset, and the creature's general quirky mannerisms, it is the scenes that he shares with Eliza that are the film's most tender. Throughout Eliza's interactions with her two friends (Zelda and Giles), while it's established that the two characters care about her deeply, we get the sense that her muteness is being taken advantage of, as both endlessly vent their personal struggles and anxieties to her with no one to cut them off. Such is the reason for Eliza's infatuation with the Asset, itself a speechless creature that doesn't see Eliza as incomplete in the slightest. When the two finally bring their relationship to the next level, like the supporting cast, we the audience have no problem accepting it. Both employ wildly different means of communication; Eliza's an organized series of gestures whereas the Asset's are primal and animalistic. However, when the two finally bring their relationship to the next level, like the supporting cast, we the audience have no problem accepting it.
The Shape of Water is hardly a fantasy. Ultimately, it's a film about tolerance. An allegory for all of history's outcasts that attempts to shine a light on the conditions from which real monsters are born. Like it's moral message of acceptance, del Toro extends this inclusion to his audience, accepting fans of all genres, offering something truly enjoyable for every kind of moviegoer. The Shape of Water is an extremely confident mesh of comedy, romance, horror, drama and musicals, with enough technical wizardry to impress any cinephile.