Guillermo Del Torro's New Film The Shape Of Water Is An Enchanting Lesson In Empathy

Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Films.
After the masterpiece that was Call Me By Your Name, I didn't think I'd come across another unforgettable love story that would leave me sobbing and clutching my heart with adoration any time soon. I was wrong.
The Shape of Water is a strange film, in the best kind of way. It's hard to truly categorize what genre it falls into: The concept of a member of the cleaning staff at a top-secret government research lab befriending a South American river monster that's been captured and experimented on is about as sci-fi as it gets. And the ending of this movie brings plenty of suspense. But at its core, The Shape of Water is a romance. Guillermo del Toro has dreamed up a whimsical new take on a fairy tale that's as old as time, from the Greek gods to Beauty and the Beast: Two beings seeing each other for who they are at their core, no matter what body — or species! — their souls just so happen to live in.
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Aside from its alluring but curious concept, there is also some exceptional acting: Sally Hawkins is brilliant in the role of the silent but courageous cleaning staffer Elisa, and Richard Jenkins as her gay neighbor Giles is, as always, a pure delight. And the visuals in this Cold War era, Baltimore-set movie are ethereal; water is like its own character throughout the entire film, and there's an unexpected dance number that will sweep you off your feet. Plus, I was eager to download the romantic, French-influenced soundtrack as soon as the credits rolled.
What truly struck me about The Shape Of Water, however, was its major, not-so-thinly-veiled message: That there is perhaps nothing as important in this world than empathy. If we can even just consider putting outside our differences, the possibilities for love are endless. And in a time where our country is more divided than ever, that's a much-needed reminder. If you've ever felt invisible and desperately wanted to be seen — even just for a moment — you'll find yourself reflected here. And if you're someone who has a hard time accepting those who aren't like you, allow me to suggest that you, my friend, might need to see The Shape Of Water more than anyone.
There are a few character arcs that might inspire viewers to expand their heart's boundaries. First, there's the protagonist, Elisa, an orphan who was abused as a child and had her vocal box cut out. Most people don't pay her any attention because of "what she lacks," as she herself puts it in sign language. And when they do, they're pretty unkind, as we see by the way her boss and the villain, Richard Strickland (perfectly portrayed by Michael Shannon) treats her.
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But Elisa is just like the rest of us, falling into a daily routine that hilariously involved hard boiled eggs and some regular bathtub masturbation. (A girl's got needs!) Yet she's only got two friends in this world: Her colleague Zelda, a Black woman whom Strickland talks down to by referring to "her people," and mansplaining Bible references and the meaning of basic words like "trivial." Ugh. Luckily the only thing that gets the viewer through those horrific scenes is some on-point comedic timing by the always lovely Octavia Spencer with her depiction of Zelda. And then there's Giles, an older man with a love for old movies and cats who gets kicked out of a diner when he tries to discretely hit on the (male) owner.
At the center of all of this is a creature (elegantly brought to life by Doug Jones) who could either be viewed as a disgusting alien, or a thing of beauty. (And really, really hot. Just saying.) While Elisa immediately views it as a harmless, even lovable person, her racist, sexist, conservative, and extremist boss Strickland is only capable of the former. "We're created in the Lord's image," he says. "You don't think that's what the Lord looks like, do you?"
When Strickland prods "the asset," as the wild thing is called, with an electric cattle prod, I felt my stomach turn. It immediately brought to mind the way slave owners used to treat slaves like inhumane pieces of meat — property, instead of beings just like them. Turns out that metaphor wasn't meant to be subtle, as during that moment and various other times throughout the movie, images from Civil Rights protests are playing on nearby televisions.
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But "the asset" isn't something to be feared, or something incapable of love; as The Shape Of Water progresses, we learn through Elisa's kindness and persistence that just because it looks different than the rest of us doesn't mean he is all that different. The two become fast friends not through words, but the universal languages: Food, music, movement, and touch. I won't give too much away, but the way del Toro uses water and special effects to illustrate some stunningly lyrical scenes between these two is breathtaking.
All four of the protagonists of The Shape Of Water are lonely, in many ways outcasts because of their "otherness." But in the end, it's exactly that group — the mute woman, the Black maid, the gay neighbor, and the fish-man — who turn out to be the heroes of this story. And that's exactly why The Shape Of Water is perhaps the timeliest movie of awards season. Because whether you're a hopeless romantic or a sci-fi geek, we all could stand to both receive and give a little more compassion right now.
The Shape of Water is now playing in New York and hits theaters nationwide December 8.
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