Every frame of director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, The Shape of Water, is packed with the density of a neutron star. The sets, the aesthetic, the lighting, the music, the props, the dialogue, the wardrobe, Sally Hawkins’ astounding performance: there is hardly a facet of the film I can observe and reflect upon without spiraling down an analytical rabbit hole.
For all its fantastical elements, the world of Shape of Water isn’t exactly a stretch. It’s a world in which economics have perverted art and humanity alike with the notion that a human being has no inherent worth. To exist, to breathe, to live, to love, these do not make one worthy. Worth is quantified, worth is earned, worth proven by purchase. The world of Shape of Water is one in which two ideas prevail; that a human being does not possess inherent worth and that a human being can, through the pursuit of worth, possess everything.
The detrimental effects of those concepts are personified here by Michael Shannon’s (perhaps a little competition for del Toro’s muse, Ron Perlman?) Strickland, who wholly accepts the idea that there is a nobility to the pursuit of having it all, perhaps because it is a pursuit with no guarantee of success, a pursuit that requires faith. He accepts the idea that those who have not chugged commerce’s Kool-Aid, those who are not in pursuit of everything, are unworthy, or have surrendered any worthiness they might have and consented to being trodden upon to prop up those undertaking the noble pursuit.
Strickland’s corruption is mirrored by the film’s presentation of a spectrum of art. We see it presented as a voice to the voiceless, a beautiful, ethereal representation of feelings and thoughts otherwise incommunicable, but we also see it slowly corrupted. We see it dictated and nitpicked in the service of commerce, in the service of fanning the flames of that noble pursuit.
It is a singular pursuit, an isolating pursuit. Not just anyone can have it all. Only you. And if you do not get it all then someone else will. Thus, you are in it alone. But in Shape of Water there are two forces of unity – love and science. One would perhaps think them diametrically opposed. Science requires the utmost rationale, love can require the utter abandonment of it. But in Shape of Water the two are bridged with senses of wonder and empathy. The defiance of scientific knowledge brings with it a sense of awe, the confirmation of scientific knowledge brings with it a sense of relatability and that awe and that relatability blossom into a true affection.
The world of Shape of Water is a world in which everyone runs along on treadmills of varying scale, chasing carrots of various sizes that only one in a million people will actually grab. It’s a world in which those treadmills seem to have been running for a long time and don’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.
Enter: Amphibian Man!
Doug Jones’ Amphibian Man is the impetus of disruption to the economic tyranny of Shape of Water, not because he is a fantastical monster but because he possesses an inherent worth that is recognized by that system of economic tyranny. The Amphibian Man isn’t on a treadmill chasing a carrot, he’s just always had a carrot, and damnit, Strickland and his ilk want it because maybe, just maybe, stealing the Amphibian Man’s carrot and offering it up to the poisonous machine all those treadmills power will earn them their very own carrot.
The Shape of Water had me enraptured from the opening shot. It is an engaging and easily-digestible narrative that is absolutely crammed with nutrients, like some sort of delicious, cinematic fiber pill. This is a movie about economics and commerce and capitalism and the military industrial complex and sexuality and race and art and womanhood and the pursuit of knowledge and nationalism and an Amphibian Man and so, so much more. It is perhaps an acquired taste, but should it be a taste you’ve acquired it will give you a lot to look at, a lot to hear, a lot to feel and a lot to think about. With Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor have crafted a masterpiece that I’ll be watching over and over again in hopes of unlocking all of its myriad secrets and sentiments.