Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Cult film auteur Guillermo del Toro, director and co-writer of the triumphant The Shape of Water, sees 1962, in which it is set, as a historical hinge point. It was the first (and last) full year of Kennedy’s Camelot and the final year of America’s perceived (if delusional) postwar idyll before the roiling sixties really began, with JFK’s assassination. Of course there were hints of dangerous intrigue – the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in October of that year, and nuclear dread had hovered over the world since 1945. But most Americans trusted a sinister clandestine elite to protect them. Representing it here is Richard Strickland (a frightening Michael Shannon), a malevolent spook who has brought an amphibious android creature (the balletic Doug Jones) – “the asset” – from the Amazon rain forest, whose natives regard him as a deity, to a covert lab in Baltimore, where American scientists will study him to gain a strategic advantage over the Soviets. After the creature has ripped out two of the sadistic Strickland’s fingers, he tortures him with a cattle prod. The resonances with twenty-first century America are only beginning.
The sole morally decent participants in this story are social and political outliers: a pair of women, one mute and one black (Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer, both flawless) who clean the laboratory; a nerdy and curiously pure government scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg, spot-on); and a struggling, gay commercial artist (the unerring Richard Jenkins) named Giles whose only friend is Hawkins’s Elisa. Elisa bonds with the creature over hardboiled eggs, music, and shared alienation. The four misfits conspire to save him from death and harvesting, which General Hoyt (a smirking Nick Searcy) has ordered, by kidnapping him and releasing him into the ocean. Although del Toro would have conceived of the movie well before the 2016 election, he hits Trump-era buttons, portraying a callous U.S. government dominated by the military and contemptuous of science; marginalized women, blacks, handicapped people, and gays; and their willed resistance. It’s the kind of art rendered, after Nietzsche’s heart, “in order not to die of the truth.”
Every artistic risk that del Toro takes pays off because he grounds otherwise jarring moments in uncomplicated humanity. The creature is momentarily demonized but quickly forgiven with the recognition that he is still a wild animal; technically deviant sex reads as naturally earned rather than weirdly twisted because it fulfills the mutual needs of intelligent, distressed beings. The film is certainly an inspired fusion of Cold War melodrama, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Beauty and the Beast, but what really plants it in memory is del Toro’s precise, sly deployment of well-conceived set-pieces. A pristinely Koons-esque pastry shop serving beautiful slices of decadent pie captures the surface sheen and abundance of pre-1960s America, the covertly bigoted proprietor robotically mouthing warm, down-home homilies that disguise the filthy underbelly of intolerance. Elisa’s cluttered, musty loft sits atop an old movie theater, a metaphor for the psychic salvation that stories – especially cinematic ones – bring. Giles’s sketchbook drawings (actually drawn by Stuhlbarg on the set), which recall the creature as the film ends, may be the only visual records of him that survive the fictional episode of history. The movie itself is one for the ages.
The Shape of Water, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro.