It's no insult to say that a horror movie is more poignant than scary, at least not when the director is Guillermo Del Toro. That's the main takeaway from his 2001 cult classic The Devil's Backbone, a ghost story set at a haunted orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, and a film that spends so much more time on the lives of its ensemble than on trying to scare us that it testifies to either the inadequacy or the versatility of the "horror" label. It is the kind of horror that wants us not to be afraid of things that go bump in the night. And of its many moments of tenderness, one of the best goes to its villain: Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a young man who, having been raised at the orphanage and then kept on as its groundskeeper, storms the place with a plan to relieve it of a cache of resistance gold. In such an operation, bloodshed is inevitable. But in the process, Jacinto finds an old photograph of himself and his family from when he was a child and takes a moment to gaze at it. He is a character who has not made a single morally redeemable choice the entire film: he is a murderer several times over, as well as a philanderer, an abuser, and a thief. He is a movie villain, and will meet his fate accordingly. And yet the film puts the plot on hold to linger on his wistful smile, to remind us that he wasn't always this way. It is a fine humanistic touch—all the more so because "humans" aren't exactly Guillermo Del Toro's most famous area of expertise.
When he accepted the Golden Globe for Best Director for The Shape of Water, Del Toro opened his speech by saying, "Since childhood, I have been faithful to monsters. I have been saved and absolved by them, because monsters, I believe, are patron saints of our blissful imperfection." It is a turn of phrase as incongruous and unironic as the film being honored, and in our age of irony, it's easy to say that with the big Oscar win for The Shape of Water, Del Toro's career-long love of movie monsters has officially been consummated. Anecdotally, most of the bemused jokes I heard this past awards season were about "fish sex," but just as outré is the film's sudden black and white musical interlude, with the creature from the black lagoon as Fred Astaire and the loyal admirer as his Ginger. She is the mute cleaning lady at a 1960s government research facility. He is the wild, paranormal, amphibious aqua-man held captive there. The film is them uniting over their outcast status, carrying out a daring escape, and sharing an unlikely romance. "Unlikely," that is, for most directors; for Del Toro, a disciple of James Whale, it is a perfectly natural extension of his kind of genre alchemy. "In three precise instances," Del Toro said back at the Golden Globes, "these strange stories, these fables, have saved my life. Once with Devil's Backbone, once with Pan's Labyrinth (2006), and now with Shape of Water."
That word, "fable," comes up a lot in discussions of Del Toro. It is an apt label, not just for those films' aesthetic choices—like a tendency to open on low-octave, once-upon-a-time narration—but for the way they present characters and narrative arcs with a moral clarity that is, depending on your tastes, either simple (which has an appeal) or simplistic (which does not). Del Toro has brought his visual flair to projects of a scale far beyond bedtime stories, and the blockbuster maximalism of the Hellboy series (2004, 2008) and Pacific Rim (2013) aren’t lacking a filmmaker's sense of commitment to their material. But taken together, his self-described lifesavers are an intriguing triple bill, in part because each studies the same particular kind of human villainy: one that would pointedly deny its own imperfection. And Del Toro is a good enough storyteller, or a moral enough fabulist, that these human creations are not only dangerous, not only alarming, but so surprisingly pitiable.
All of which is to say that while Sally Hawkins makes a fine Cold War Cinderella, and Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer grab hold of humble roles and don't let go, the most interesting character in The Shape of Water belongs to Michael Shannon as Strickland, the film's government stooge. He enters the movie in a suit so dark black that he literally drains light out of the theater, and then proceeds to bundle all the negative clichés of the Fathers Knows Best era into a single, cruel, cattle-prod-twirling package. He spouts off about the Bible, America, and "weaknesses of character," even though he hasn't moral authority on any of them. He is both menacing and parodic, with Shannon's face a mask of distorted normalcy. And if Strickland is the most inwardly conflicted character in the film—and thus the least reducible—it is because he carries the most impurities. He is a sadist who reads The Power of Positive Thinking (he can't be a negative frame of mind, he explains); a guarded skeptic who's a sucker for the sales pitch at a Cadillac dealership ("four out of five successful men" drive one, he's assured); and an establishment loyalist who landed a perfect suburban wife and family but doesn't seem attached to any of them.
The only time where he breaks and allows vulnerability is to his own boss. How can it be, Strickland asks, that if a man has been loyal and useful for years, a single mistake can make him a failure? The answer is harsher than he hopes, so he goes to bathroom, looks at his reflection, and says to himself, as an affirmation, "You deliver." And then he charges into the third act, driven not just by the mixture of malice, anger, and nefarious intent associated with movie villains, but with the pathetic desperation of a middleman who fancied he was big and is coming dangerously close to realizing he's not.
He is, however, not alone in Del Toro's work. And in fact, Vidal (Sergi Lopez), the fascist commander of Pan's Labyrinth and Del Toro's most unstoppable monster, has a mirror scene of his own. Vidal is another brutal adherent to strict hierarchies, and his inner life is explained most by what he refuses to say. He rebuffs his new wife's public display of affection. He has issues surrounding his father, which the film will allude to and Vidal will quickly suppress. And then, during his daily shave, he is reminded of his father, and with the mirror in one hand and razor in the other, he pantomimes slitting his own throat.
It is the most sudden and raw expression of the repressed self-loathing that unites Del Toro's otherwise remorseless villains: Jacinto, a bully with such an easily bruised ego, and Strickland, stewing in a picture-perfect suburb that he grumbles isn't outside a more big-time metropolis than Baltimore. Small is a relative term, but a point of distinction for Del Toro's smaller films, as opposed to a Hellboy or a Pacific Rim, is that the narrative clashes come not just from a contest of strength but from a contrast of character: those who find solace in their innocence versus those who've willingly thrown it away. It is the emotional openness of Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins against the unreflective arrogance and self-denying dissatisfaction of Michael Shannon. One of the finer notes of The Shape of Water is how Sally Hawkins and Michael Shannon both spend the film with a small deformity; for Hawkins, a lifelong scar that is ultimately transformed into a latent strength, and for Shannon, a wound on his hand that causes part of his own body to rot.
How to account for the peculiar effect of such contrasts and allegories in their genre context? They have been with Del Toro's cinema since the start, springing onto the screen the same time as his taste for the Gothic. Cronos (1993), his debut, made in Mexico before he had turned thirty, is a tale of Faustian immortality. It also is—or was, before The Shape of Water—his most eclectic blend of ingredients. Should a new viewer arrive at Del Toro’s filmography and begin at the beginning, Cronos will present them with a corpse hanging upside down over a basin of blood; a grandfather and granddaughter with a Chaplinesque bond; and a vaguely slapstick comic subplot in which a vain, muscle-bound Ron Perlman frets about getting a nose job. At the center is a device that can grant unholy eternal life. Two families, each with an elder patriarch, fight over it, and the details of the film put them in the simplest opposition: one has little money but is close to each other, and the other has lots of money but is not. (Perlman, as a dying tycoon's nephew, can't wait to dance on his uncle's grave and collect the inheritance). And the film, in its final moments, suggests that the former way of life is the only comfort for when death comes and it's time to inevitably fade to white.
There is a certain religiosity to that final fade. And indeed, there is a religiosity in Del Toro's work in general, not just because can you move through his films playing spot-the-crucifix, but because of the reverence they give to the ideas of born innocence, wayward souls, rational proof versus superstition (the latter is always more truthful), and a hopeful speculation that something of human life might transcend the material world. Del Toro has spoken about his own religious background at length, and in his public statements he comes across as one of cinema's most affable lapsed Catholics, one who internalized the architecture of a church catacomb and the moral framework of so many (frankly morbid) religious parables but regarded the institution itself with a certain wariness. "Every Sunday, we would go to church and then watch movies," Del Toro said in a recent TV appearance, relating when he first saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). He seems to take a relish in talking about the way those two sources got entangled in his mind: how he saw parallels between Universal’s horror films and religious martyrs, how storytelling fulfills his spiritual function, and how both Bible stories and fairy tales—and you could just as easily throw in countless Hollywood films—are about the humble overcoming the powerful. Not for nothing does The Shape of Water's "princess without a voice" lives above an old movie palace—Baltimore's Orpheum, the most mythological name an old movie palace could have. It is showing the deep-cut Bible epic The Story of Ruth (1960), and any parallel that she or the audience might glean from that Biblical heroine would come not from the church of god, but from the church of cinema—and intensely kitschy cinema, at that.
The Shape of Water is by no means Del Toro's best. But it is the first of his American pictures to operate so successfully in the key and scale of his three Spanish-language films, even as, through the American setting, its allusions and orchestra swoons owe less to the mythology of time immemorial and more to Hollywood classicism. Universal Horror is, of course, a given. Hawkins does a tap dance down the hall to imitate Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple. "Done in the style of Douglas Sirk," is how Del Toro giddily described his pitch for The Shape of Water on the Oscar stage, which would make Del Toro's beloved Gill-Man not only Fred Astaire, but Rock Hudson—only in legend, though, because Sirk's subversive present tense (or any present tense) is notably absent. The Shape of Water's heart and soul is most succinctly symbolized in an early scene, where Richard Jenkins comes across a Civil Rights protest on TV, is hurt by the sight, and switches the channel to a musical. In other words, The Shape of Water will take serious topics and pains as its building blocks and then magic them into something impossible and beautiful. And that method has been part of Hollywood's unofficial charter for so long that it's a credit to Del Toro that he can express it in such a decidedly odd package.
So as The Shape of Water emerges from Oscar night as the big victor, I don't place much stock in it as a love story; the creature is more a fetish object than a character. The film's social insight is small; it's no more an exploration of what it means to be marginalized in America than Pan's Labyrinth is a history of life under the Franco dictatorship. What it is, one might say, is an earnest expression of a certain kind of cinephile dogma, one that learned its lessons more during matinees than Sunday school, and one that gets the same pleasure from a musical as a monster movie and wouldn't mind at all if a filmmaker took it upon themselves to combine the two. It is a pop-art beatitude, delivered in a chapel built from the movies of the mid-20th century.
In his role as a fabulist, Del Toro leaves little up to ambiguity; at the very end of The Devil's Backbone, the camera and narrator return to Jacinto's photograph, just in case you missed it. But if his takes on history and morality deserve the label of "hand-holding," they deserve it in the warm connotation of the term as well as the pejorative one. He makes the kind of movie whose sensory appeal speaks for itself, and whose lasting appeal sinks or sails on its articulation of sincere purity—a trait that, throughout Del Toro's triumphs and misfires, blockbusters and oddities, vaunted hits and humbler-yet-grander moments, has remained one of his greatest strengths. Blissful imperfection indeed.