THE SHAPE OF WATER gives beauty to isolation and loneliness
When it comes to adult fairy tales, no one does them darker or more meaningful than Guillermo del Toro. The Shape of Water is a gloomy, if beautiful, fish out of water story – no, really.
Shy Elisa (Sally Hawkins) lives an existence of quiet desperation. She lives above a struggling movie theater across the hall from a struggling artist (Richard Jenkins) and struggles daily to make it to work on time for her overnight shift at an oceanic research facility in Baltimore. Her days are the same from sundown to sunrise, cleaning up after important people and listening to her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) fill the silence with a life that’s not necessarily more exciting, but at least shared. Elisa is mute, but she’s not stupid or soft. She’s a dreamer spending a lot of time in her head and living through old movies on television.
One day the Army moves in and they’ve brought a new subject to study – an amphibian humanoid (Doug Jones) dragged from the rivers of South America. Studied and antagonized by the weirdly fastidious Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), the government wants the Asset’s secret to breathing on land and in water so that they can beat the Russians in the space race. Meanwhile, the Russians have a man of their own on the inside trying to extract the same information. Eliza only wants to make friends with a fellow outsider, another soul with limited communication, and they begin a tentative relationship of trust and friendship. Little by little color slowly seeps into her life because of her new friendship. When the Asset’s life is in mortal danger, Elisa hatches (heh, like a fish, see) a plan to break him out and release him into the ocean via rain-swollen canals, but she’ll have to outsmart the Russians, Strickland, and Zelda’s own busy-body nature to make it work.
Running parallel is the story of her neighbor Giles, who finds himself a different sort of fish. His career as a commercial artist is on life support as photography replace his time-intensive oil paintings and his attraction to a local pie slinger can only further his isolation. He’s older than he wants to be, more out of touch than he can stand, and Eliza’s crazy plans certainly don’t help
I’m going to say this again because it’s super important: The Shape of Water is an adult fairy tale and I do not recommend you bring your kids to see it unless you want to explain masturbation, sex with fishmen, and Cold War-era politics.
You can’t help but get wrapped in the story. You’ll boo and hiss at the villains, and cheer for the unexpected heroes. You want all of the underdogs to win. There is enchantment and romance, but if you’ve ever seen a Guillermo del Toro fairy tale, you’ll know the price of happiness, and you’ll accept the cost in full.
Is The Shape of Water an Abe Sapien (Hellboy) prequel/origin story? Some insist yes since there’s supposed to be a new Hellboy feature releasing next year – but del Toro says no, and frankly, I’m inclined to believe the writer/director. There are other fishman tales out there, and most of them have nothing to do with Abe, but this one should be at the top of your list.
The Shape of Water is rated R for sex with fish, self-love, finger munching swears, and an uncomfortable nuclear family dynamic.