Guillermo del Toro, the Academy Award-nominated director of The Shape of Water, should get an Oscar for the entertainment value alone. Even better, let him host this year’s Academy Awards and allow him to remake the show by recreating the nature of the award itself. He would transform that golden statuette into a flesh-and-blood Midas—a creature too marvelous to behold, with a monstrous streak too real not to believe—who grips a sword with otherworldly strength.
This Oscar would at once mesmerize and mortify us, turning 100 million TV screens from glass into a series of translucent amniotic sacs from which the creature would emerge, piercing this thin layer between fantasy and life.
Such is the genius of del Toro as a director. He is a cross between a magician and an artist who squeezes globs of oil paint onto each frame of film; who empties so many tubes of Technicolor; who casts the remains, folded and frayed, about his feet; who litters the floor with these cracked and creased containers; then tosses this trash like a billionaire throwing dollars every which way, as he runs through the streets with the joy of a Christian convert and the energy of his own euphoria.
The truly magical thing is that he does this, or so it seems, with every showing of his story. He brushes and scrapes swirls of cadmium red, rust, chrome, and cerulean blue. He mixes lemon, sunshine, topaz, and teal. He paints with a palette knife, shaping—and sharpening—his dream version of mid-century Baltimore.
Thus does The Shape of Water take shape as an allegory about a quintet of misfits who inherit the earth—and the sea. They include an orphaned mute who lives above a movie theater, her apartment as grand as the grandeur below, where, in a tracking shot that runs from the hallway outside her door to the inside of her home, we meet her neighbor, a gay illustrator; and watch her begin her day, walking from the bright lights that line the marquee into the promise of the dawn’s early light. Her friend and co-worker, a black cleaning woman, is her savior against the tyranny of the time clock and the tedium of their jobs. A scientist, who is a Communist spy with a crisis of faith about his faithless ideology, completes this quartet.
The fifth and final member is an amphibious demigod, a bioluminescent sea monster from South America known as “the Asset.”
Allow me, however, to go back that apartment, because it is the greatest example of excellence in production design since Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. I exaggerate not in the slightest, not when this set is as visually expressive as its resident is vocally silent. From its arched window and streaks of fog, which look like shades of frost, to its water-stained walls and hardwood floors, details abound in this weather-beaten wonderland. Del Toro furnishes the room with shabby chic style: a curio cabinet with a glass door, a dust-covered vacuum cleaner, a brass coat stand, an umbrella, tattered fringes of wallpaper, an aquamarine card table, a nautical-themed overhead light, and stacks of books, boxes, and bric-a-brac.
The entire film is a decorative feast. It shines like the tail fins and trim of a 1962 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. It is a land yacht of an automobile, cruising from the showroom to just outside the living room of its owner, a sadist played by Michael Shannon. The coldest of Cold Warriors, Shannon is a man in black. He is a humorless agent, dressed more like his coeval cousins in The Matrix than an icon of the New Frontier.
Shannon is the soulless counterweight to a film rich in spirituality. Therein lies the irony of this masterpiece: Guillermo del Toro is, to put it mildly, a very lapsed Catholic who nonetheless populates his movie with religious heroines and biblical references. He features a movie within a movie, where The Story of Ruth plays to an empty theater, while he gives his mute protagonist the name Eliza, which is a Hebrew variant of Aliza, meaning “God is my oath.”
She enlists her fellow lepers, the outcasts of their day, to save the day by saving the Asset’s life. They risk their lives, and the scientist loses his life, because of their faithful devotion to humanity.
The creature is their salvation, not because of his ability to heal the sick and rise from the dead (though he can do both), but because of his love for Eliza and of her love for him.
Though his vengeance may teach our hearts to fear, his grace relieves our fears. It is precious when his grace appears, marking the hour when all first believe.
He endures many dangers, toils, and snares. But grace brings him safely to the sea. And grace leads him home.
It is an amazing sight to see, and the sweetest sound to hear, when the grace of an outcast saves us from ourselves.
A picture of poetry, and a hymnal of hope, The Shape of Water is an instant classic. It deserves a place alongside the gods of film and a place in the hearts of every filmgoer who believes in God. It reminds us that the least among us often have the most to give. Their love is a gift that redeems us, renewing us with compassion and rewarding us with the radiance of more than 10,000 points of light.