- IN THE SWIM OF THINGS: Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her merman.
When a filmmaker becomes as influential and successful as Guillermo del Toro — a "Hellboy" here, a "Pacific Rim" there, "Pan's Labyrinth" for the pure aesthetes out there — one hopes, surely, not to have to make demeaning, sound bite-sized pitches for projects. Yet the one that kept coming to mind during "The Shape of Water," del Toro's lush, strange and sort of pervy Cold War fairy tale about a woman and the fish-man she adores, the phrase that kept popping into my head was, it's like "Amelie" meets "The Creature From the Black Lagoon."
Looking at the allowance del Toro received — less than $20 million for the picture — it must've read like that on paper. Lamented the beleaguered director/screenwriter: "It was a terrible filmmaking experience. Very difficult, very difficult. We crammed $60 or $70 million of budget into a movie that had only $19.5 [million]." That's a pittance, especially when you're setting most of the action in a giant government facility slash research bunker; hiring as your stars Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon, Oscar nominees all (Spencer, a winner); and building an anatomically credible man-shaped fish creature replete with the sort of anatomical details (second eyelids, bristling quills, rad electrical currents) that make you believe, sure, the U.S. government found this specimen and maybe now wants to weaponize it, or at least make sure the Russians don't get it? "The natives in the Amazon worshipped it," says Shannon as Strickland, the brutal hardass in charge of the project and the antagonist. "Like a god. We need to take it apart, learn how it works." But — on a budget, everyone.
You won't miss the expenditure, though; del Toro is a mastermind at visual storytelling, and for all the grandiosity of the setup, the real story unfolds not as a monster-action flick but as an old-fashioned romance. Hawkins and Spencer are cleaning staff at this quasi-military facility where the creature (credited as "amphibian man," he's played by Doug Jones) is brought in one day — ostensibly as a top-secret asset, though guarded with 1960 tech and apparently without regard for the help. Hawkins, as Elisa, is mute; Spencer, who is black, seems equally invisible to Strickland and the rest of the brass there. Elisa in particular is captivated by this creature they keep chained in a tank, and which Strickland sadistically zaps with a prod. She smuggles in a turntable to play music for the creature; she gains his trust by leaving hard-boiled eggs on the rim of his pool; she teaches him some rudimentary signs so they can chit-chat.
For an amphibian man, look, let's just get this out of the way: He's pretty ripped. Maybe someone out there has an inchoate thing for mermen or whatever. If so, you totally hit the jackpot.
Anyway, Elisa and our swimming friend become pals, and maybe more than pals, and we know this is all going somewhere pretty romantical because the movie is pretty upfront about Elisa's affinity for water (rarely in American movies will you see a character incorporate self-pleasure into her daily bath as forthrightly as Elisa). She enlists the help of her painfully lonely, gay, recovering alcoholic artist neighbor (Jenkins, movingly) to help her make a break with her crush. Shannon, on the other end of the pendulum, is as ever the hard-edged, block-jawed emotionally constipated mid-century American male. He likes his Cadillac, his pneumatic wife and maybe his kids, if he were to notice them. He doesn't hear the French-tinged soundtrack, nor the jazz and blues of Elise's records, nor does it cross his mind that if a god exists, that He might look completely different from the old European notion passed down to us through cathedral frescoes. He might, in fact, be a gentle, rad fish creature who gets the hots for a quiet janitor who has good vinyl and who is, foremost, in touch with herself.