the shape of water (2017)
Perfection of form is a difficult notion to grapple with in life, and one that continually presents itself for re-evaluation throughout human history. It's a question without an answer, a philosophical puzzle we can never solve; if we strive for improvement, progress and advancement in all we do, how can we trust our initial supposition of perfection as a concept in the first place? How do we treat abnormalities that occur naturally? Do we exterminate them? Learn from them? Assimilate? Through acceptance of Darwinism, eugenics points toward a world where we as a species can take hold of the process of evolution, weed out the weaker genes and deformities, and push humanity to its fullest potential. The God concept plays a vital role in this struggle, as Michael Shannon's character reminds us, humans are created in God's image, and he adds while addressing Octavia Spencer's character "but he probably looks more like me". So it is that The Shape of Water takes shape all around us and Del Toro's opus unfolds with all of the gravitas and beauty I suspected was within him as a filmmaker, but have never seen fully expressed until now. A thematically loaded 2 hours with tangential forays into Del Toro's musings on art and life, the film is a gripping experience and one that never sits still, yet moves deeper and deeper into its central spiral, that nagging feeling that a world of wonder waits all about us and somewhere there is a force (or, as in this film, several forces) that cares little for the beauty of life and only wants to rape or pillage, wants dominance. When this militaristic mindset finds itself on the right side of the law, the danger cannot be overstated as the natural growth process of life itself is called into question. Guided and controlled Darwinism fails in Del Toro's film, blinded by what it thinks it knows, unable to see the miracle that appears before it. The Shape of Water is the film that Guillermo Del Toro has been aiming for his entire career.
To add to the film's central point of focus, Del Toro also seems to be relentlessly striving to perfect the craft of his own films. The Shape of Water is far and away his most accomplished film visually with equal weight placed on conveying his tale as well as dazzling us with the other-worldly beauty of his more surreal sequences. Never does Del Toro, here, attach himself to realism. Instead, he lands firmly in the place of expressionism and having the film emote from its own core, the messages he embeds are recognizable, yet not altogether fleshed out as we enter into the film's richer acts. With each character, good or evil, the same treatment is given. Judgement of who is righteous and who is vile is still dolled out based on past actions, adding a bit of morality to the play at hand, but not enough that we become bogged down in conventional assertions of right and wrong. Biting the head off a cat (don't ask) is a terrible tragedy, but one that makes more and more sense when we attach the entire concept to the actions. In all, his film sees a world of cookie-cutter sensibility, proverbial knowledge and words to live by, judgements on one's character based on poor form in urination, how and when we wash our hands. The film sees organized society as a series of missionary positions rather than the blank canvas by which we are able to craft and life we choose, diversity in form of all kinds. The abnormality only highlighted, and ultimately defined, by the presence of the normality. What Del Toro offers to deepen this potentially one-note social relativist critique is to shine more of a spotlight on Shannon's character, what makes him tick, his rotting fingers and his teeth chomping down on hard candy from his childhood (which he once again, in a moment of great comedy/drama, attributes an explanation of why his character is superior based on his choice of candies, reaching for anything to satisfy his ego, the Cadillac of chewable compressed sugar). The monster and our heroin, Hawkins' Elisa, are our central focus throughout yet command less screen time, a smart move on Del Toro's part as too much focus on any one element here would render it devoid of its narrative powers. The monster here is the central focus for all characters, our MacGuffin throughout the film, yet it is only humanized and truly explored in the third act. Del Toro sidesteps the temptation to show us too much of the 'getting to know you' moments between he and Hawkins.
That the film eventually gives way to the more standard fantasy stock conclusion of the super-powered hero, the showdown with the villain and a gun and the ultimate triumph of nonconformity over its conformist overlord is unsurprising, but it is the film's most major misstep. Del Toro's success is in his portrait of the wonders of existence that could be all around us, but are ignored or stamped out due to our human tunnel vision; the dog-eat-dog and kill-or-be-killed fallacies of a warlike species that thinks more about eradicating threats than about preserving possibilities. The complexities on display for much of the film never fall deeply into a fairy tale story, but keep us firmly in a magical realist sense, which is where the film best belongs. Del Toro keeps all elements firmly in check and the film never runs away with itself. The attention to the production design is laudable as the sets and his gothic lighting bring us into the dark and damp world. Again, this is the monster movie that Del Toro has been attempting his entire career and has finally achieved, this is his Frankenstein. It is also his finest achievement as a director and the film that finally sees him firing on all cylinders. Each character's journey is decided by their circumstance in a way that we pity, yet Del Toro is less interested in gaining that pity than he is in diving into the "why" of it all and that is what elevates the film beyond its trappings.