It’s remarkable how certain movies can suddenly bring a director’s entire body of work into sharper focus. I’ve enjoyed Guillermo del Toro’s dark fairy tales for years, but before I saw The Shape of Water, it had never occurred to me that he is, in many ways, the anti-Lovecraft. True, bizarre supernatural entities lurk in the shadows of his imaginative worlds, but these “monsters” are rarely as horrifying as the irrational, simple-minded cruelty of men like Captain Vidal (Pan’s Labyrinth), Angel de la Guardia (Cronos), and Jacinto (The Devil’s Backbone); indeed, even such shifty characters as The Faun (who nearly convinces poor Ofelia to sacrifice her baby brother in order to escape the crushing brutality of her day-to-day existence) seem benign in comparison.
Granted, Del Toro has always been preoccupied with these themes; The Shape of Water’s Cold War setting merely illuminates them more clearly. Our protagonists, a captivating ensemble of outsiders and outcasts—Sally Hawkins’ mute janitor, Richard Jenkins’ reclusive gay artist, and Michael Stuhlbarg’s compassionate Russian scientist—struggle to survive in a society that demands conformity. When they learn of plots by both the jingoistic Americans and the oppressive Soviets to destroy a captive amphibious creature (Doug Jones, conveying both animal instinct and alien intellect with the aid of some impressive special effects wizardry) simply to prevent it from falling into “enemy” hands, however, they resolve to stand up for what’s right… after a bit of tender fish-man loving, of course.
I’ll be honest: in terms of narrative structure, The Shape of Water is one of Del Toro’s weaker efforts: several scenes drag on for too long, while others feel more like snapshots than complete story beats. That said, it’s so immaculately designed, from the unconventional rhythm of the period music to the briefly-glimpsed anti-Commie propaganda posters adorning the sterile laboratory walls, that I couldn’t really bring myself to care. Warts and all, it’s a spellbinding cinematic experience, and a valuable addition to a splendid filmography.
[Originally written December 9, 2017.]