“That’s the future now — green!”
With this correction, about 40 minutes into The Shape of Water, struggling commercial illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins), proudly toting his commissioned portrait of a nuclear American family huddled around a red gelatin mold, is sent back to the drawing board. Green is the hue of progress, not red.
Green is certainly the warmest color in The Shape of Water, the first Oscar-buzzy American feature from sci-fi auteur Guillermo Del Toro. Clothing, walls, cars, slices of ectoplasmic pie in a local greasy spoon — all radiate variations of blue-green pigment. If any variation dominates, it’s the aquatic seafoam fantasy that Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), our lonely, mute protagonist, creates in her slumber.
If Elisa’s idealized life is one of gilled, oceanic freedom, her meager above-ground existence leaves much to be desired. She lives in Baltimore in the early 1960s, just as the Cold War has begun to extend into the cosmos. She’s a janitor at a top-secret aerospace laboratory, mopping urine and other bodily excretions alongside colleague Zelda (an effortless Octavia Spencer), who is married but just as unfulfilled. Her only other friend, Giles, is a closeted gay man in a neighboring apartment, who needs her as much as she needs him.
One day, an “asset” is brought to the lab for experimentation — a humanoid amphibian (Doug Jones, the former contortionist and Del Toro’s go-to monster man) dredged from a lake in South America by abusive colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), with hopes that this miraculous discovery will help the U.S. win the space race. Elisa soon establishes clandestine after-hours communiqués with the surprisingly intelligent asset — an old-fashioned biped evoking the creature from the Black Lagoon — bonding over hard-boiled eggs and Big Band music, even teaching it some sign language.
The Shape of Water is a tender love story of sorts, and the silent companionship between Elisa and the monster is the movie’s heartbeat. Without resorting to didacticism, it makes salient points about the sentience of marine life — its ability to experience pleasure and pain in a multisensory world — which ichthyologists have only recently begun to discover. (Tellingly, one of the film’s villains, a Russian operative, declares that his meal of lobster “squeaked a little” while it boiled.) Moreover, the nameless creature is equal parts human, animal and god, an identity-free receptacle to be filled with our fantasies and escapes, our biases and isms.
But if Jones’ creature is the ultimate Other, he’s only the most extreme victim of oppression haunting the narrative’s edges, from Giles’ conflicted acceptance of his sexuality to the young black couple thrown out of Giles’ favorite diner when they try to sit at the counter. The autocratic Strickland bitterly deploys the “you people” slur to Zelda, and on Giles’ television, we briefly see images of black civil-rights crusaders fire-hosed by police. Avoidance being his preferred defense mechanism, he implores Elisa to flip the channel to an old movie, finding solace in Betty Grable.
Yet Del Toro, for all of his film’s effective underlying themes, is an entertainer first and a humanist second. In its busy back half, the bigger questions tend to get lost in the adventuresome mechanics of Elisa’s ragtag theft of the monster and Strickland’s dogged quest to retain it. Like Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja, another tragicomic creature-feature from another otherworldly director, The Shape of Water awkwardly straddles the blockbuster and the art film.
The Shape of Water boasts an original screenplay by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, but it betrays its director’s background in comic-book adaptations. It feels like an artisanal Marvel movie, with too many of the genre’s creaky plot points and familiar archetypes: Shannon’s one-dimensional villain on a singular mission, Jones’ scaly mutant with superpowers, Jenkins’ trusty and crusty sidekick.
What no Marvel flick has, of course, is Hawkins, whose beguiling visage and spectrum of emotionality reach their expressionistic peaks in her silent performance. The movie’s explanation of Elisa’s muteness is incomplete, but it doesn’t matter; Hawkins’ nuanced, full-figured acting proves no words — or backstory — are necessary. All she needs is a companion and a green screen.
THE SHAPE OF WATER. Director: Guillermo Del Toro; Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg; Distributor: Fox Searchlight; Opens: Friday at most area theaters