In Guillermo del Toro’s previous movie, ‘Crimson Peak,’ the character Edith Cushing says that the book she is writing is not a ghost story; it is a story with a ghost in it. It was an obvious message that the movie was not a horror movie. Unfortunately, the studio decided to market it as a horror movie and people went in with the wrong expectations, leading to a disappointing response.
‘The Shape of Water’ is not a monster movie; it is a movie with a monster in it. The movie is a romantic fairytale, set once upon a time at the height of the Cold War, and was thankfully marketed as such. It is a beautifully shot movie with an amazing score by composer Alexandre Desplat; it is also a movie nominated for 13 Oscars that features heartfelt scenes of romantic love between a woman and fish-man. Del Toro managed to impress the Academy with an unapologetically genuine “beauty and the beast” story he dreamed up while watching Creature from the Black Lagoon as a child.
There is a reason there are a lot of “beauty and the beast” stories; many people feel that they are monsters, made to feel that way by others or themselves (for this same reason there needs to be more stories breaking from the template of the beauty being a woman and the beast being a man). Stories about monsters having their humanity recognized and returning to humanity, and more recently, stories about monsters being loved for what they are, are comforting to people who feel like monsters. ‘The Shape of Water’ knows this, and its heroes all live, having been made to feel wrong, lesser, or incomplete by others.
The performances and characters are all stellar. Sally Hawkins’s Eliza is a perfectly crafted character. Eliza is mute, and part of what draws her to the monster in the laboratory is that he cannot talk and does not seem to understand the idea of vocal language even as he learns to sign. She thinks that even her best friends view her as incomplete. The creature does not. Sally Hawkins expresses more emotion in one scene than some movies of this year have in their entireties. The Oscar nomination is well-deserved.
Doug Jones does his best work as the fish man. In his previous creature-suit roles, where he was playing a character and not just an animal-like monster, he usually had either dialogue or a more human-like face to better connect with the audience. Here, he has neither, and must convey everything mostly through body language, which he has become an expert in.
The main antagonist, Michael Shannon’s Strickland, likes to present himself as a typical 1950’s family man. He acts as the avatar of the society that has dehumanized the heroes of the movie. Shannon is able to keep what others might play as a cartoon grounded and real even as his mind and his pretense of morality decay. The rest of the cast members are all great and bring their characters to life, particularly Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins, who both earned their Oscar nominations.
Content warnings: Violence and gore — including a scene with a cat, nudity, and some explicit sexual content.
Due to technological difficulties, articles from the Feb. 15 issue were posted late. The Lorian apologizes for the late update.