I like to think that, above all else – escapism, dumb fun, a vessel for making out – we go to the movies out of romance. A feeling that we want and crave, that hooks us into something in a time you sense in your bones and memory, something you are linked to through the cosmos. Sure, I acknowledge that sounds naive and lofty, but I prefer to think of it as imaginative and wide eyed wondrous. We go to the movies to find romance, to be romanced, and out of romantic ideals. Few directors get this more than Guillermo Del Toro. Few films exemplify this like The Shape of Water.
“…a revelation of humanism and progression.”
I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe in Guillermo. His fantasies, his monsters among men, his cleverness and creativity, his vision of a present informed by a tragic past that can only be saved into a progressive future by bands of outsiders, etc. Having seen King Kong late in my cinephile life – a movie all about creation and the nature of humanity – I understand and relate to Del Toro’s worldview and appreciate vastly his approach to people and life. The Shape of Water finds these qualities in a purified state, coming to a fine point and coming out with something glorious. Something completely in love.
It would be simple to break down the story into “woman falls in love with Gill-Man”, and while that is a highlight and central thrust, there is more going on here. Set during the height of the Cold War, during late night shifts in a government bunker out of Baltimore, Shape of Water tells an adult fairy tale within a most xenophobic and prejudice filled era in American history. Anyone not white and “normal” are looked at lowly and with disdain. Our heroes are a mute woman, a gay artist and an African American wife, all of whom have faced their share of adversities, in one way or another. The discovery and suffering of the recently caught “Creature” is but the tip of the iceberg. People are turned around from sitting at a diner, rude insults are hurled in average and casual ways, regression and hatred are encouraged and emboldened through ignorance and silence.
“I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe in Guillermo…”
Through the love at first sight between this “half man” and lonely but resilient maid, we receive an all too timely message in a year most foul – by breaking social caste and order, revealing one’s true self. Sally Hawkins and Michael Shannon, the protagonist and antagonist respectively, have such connective chemistry with one another through their arcs and personalities, that moves past juxtaposition and becomes a revelation of humanism and progression. Both are pitch perfect in their roles, with Shannon being especially terrifying as a man in decay and Hawkins as a hopeful woman glowing like a beacon. The mere fact that her character lives above a movie theater should not be glossed over. Literally, she sleeps in the “mind” area of the building / cinema, where you can suggest that dreams are formed and eventually realized by her. It’s a magical notion, if one were to believe in such things. I don’t, but maybe I want to.
“…something glorious. Something completely in love.”
Infamous film critic and all around curmudgeon Rex Reed, in his negative review of the film, labeled Hawkins as “mentally handicapped”, in quite the dismissive and demeaning manner. Reed is not unlike those in Shape of Water that look to roll with the tide of ugliness, of control, of MAGA (Make America Great Again). Del Toro’s film is an exposure and rebuke of those notions, showcasing them for how outdated they are and always have been. This is a movie that reminds us of that thing that beats in our collective chests, those ideas we have in that thing inside our heads and them dancing images we go to see on that thing in the dark room. We go to the movies to feel and to think, but also because we are romantic creatures. Romantic not for a world that never should’ve been, but for one better than we have now. The Shape of Water is a cinematic fight for that world, one that could be born out of creativity and dreaming. Out of romance. Out of the movies.
For that, it is my pick for best film of 2017. If only it were part of the Dark Universe…
The Shape of Water (2017) Directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Written by Vanessa Taylor & Guillermo Del Toro. Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones.
5 out of 5