GoodTrash Critique: The Shape of Water

Guillermo Del Toro Presents: The Shape of Water

Looking for Holiday movies off the beaten path? The Shape of Water is a great place to look.

Shape of Water
Del Toro’s transgressive love story does not disappoint.

Del Toro is Back!

The specific Guillermo Del Toro that I mean is the one who directed Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. That does not mean that I don’t love and appreciate Blade II, Pacific Rim, or The Strain television series, but in my opinion we have been enduring a moment of lesser GDT. But folks…he’s back!

The Shape of Water is another entry in the dark fairy tradition of Pan’s Labyrinth (also in its color palate) in which a young mute woman (Sally Hawkins) finds and befriends the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) and with the help of her two closest friends, (Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins) tries to deliver him from the clutches of a nefarious government research facility run with an iron cattle prod by Michael Shannon.

Since this is a review post, not an analysis post, I will avoid spoilers. However, what I can say is that the performances are marvelous, with Richard Jenkins’ repressed artist as the surprising standout in support of the stellar Hawkins and Jones. Like his earlier films, GDT puts all the money in set and costume design and it shows beautifully. Furthermore, he’s back fighting his old nemesis, fascism and this time he’s taking on the American variety. Shannon putrefies (both literally and figuratively) throughout the film with the specifically American brands of nationalism, racism, and religion gone awry that fits the film’s 1961 setting. It also speaks powerfully to our current moment. The Shape of Water, indicts racism, homophobia, and religious dogmatism in equal measures as Shannon plays Pan’s Captain Vidal with an American accent. The Shape of Water could be seen as part of a spiritual trilogy with Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone.

New Territory

GDT has always been a cinephile with subtle references to Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock and Mario Bava throughout his filmography, but it gets meta with The Shape of Water. Easily one could see it as a sequel to The Creature From the Black Lagoon that reverses that earlier film’s McCarthyism. However, GDT goes a step further. Sure, the 1960 epic, The Story of Ruth is an obvious intertextual reference, and GDT clearly twists the Judeo-Christian tradition from the regressive hands of the powers that be, recasting Ruth and Boaz and reclaiming the anti-racist message of the Hebrew text. This twist has massive implications in sexual politics as well. However, Del Toro’s Catholic rehabilitation notwithstanding, the film is about the magical ways in which cinema gives voice to human emotions we find otherwise difficult to articulate. This gets explicit in a scene that will annoy some I am certain, but one I have to call a brave and interesting choice. The movie is as much Jean Cocteau as it is Jack Arnold and it works! The result is a meta-textual feast full of dark erotic surrealist, anti-fascist storytelling that many GDT fans have been missing.

Del Toro is back, but he is not just plowing the same old ground, he’s growing and trying some new risks. If you’re looking for a little nutrition to go with the cloying holiday cinema out there, you can do little better than The Shape of Water.

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