The best movies, the ones that stand the test of time, can be many things to many different people. Guillermo Del Toro has crafted just such a film with The Shape of Water, a film that is as beautiful as it is bizarre, as terrifying as it is heartbreaking. Part creature feature, part swooning 1950s romance, and part paranoid Cold War-era thriller, The Shape of Water is a perfect blending of Del Toro’s capricious sensibilities and his most successful film since Pan’s Labyrinth, with which it would make a perfect companion piece.
Set in Baltimore at the height of Cold War tensions, when Russkies were believed to be around every corner, the story follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman abandoned as a child and has grown to live by her own rigorous routine. You can set a clock, and literally Elisa does this, to the boiling of her favorite hard-boiled eggs which gives her those precious few minutes to bathe, pleasure herself, and prepare for work. Elisa may be silent, and the apartment she lives in resembling a nightmarish Bates Motel under the best of circumstances (plus it’s always dark and rainy!), her life is a full one. She’s besties with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted man who does advertising art and crushes hard over the guy at the pie shop. She and Giles spend their evenings glued to the TV watching old black & white musicals, films you wouldn’t think to be an influence on Del Toro’s vision for The Shape of Water but, well, you’d be surprised.
Del Toro paints such a vivid character portrait that he could almost make a full-figured film out of just one half of Elisa’s life, but thankfully he didn’t. Because it’s at her job, cleaning up a top secret government facility cleverly known as Occam (as in Occam’s Razor), where she meets the latest “asset” to be researched. A merman (Doug Jones), straight from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (a Del Toro favorite) has been held captive there by the menacing, cattle prod-wielding Strickland (Michael Shannon). A wild, untamed creature, not unlike Jones’ Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movies, it senses a kindred spirit in Elisa. And she too senses their connection, and soon she’s sneaking in to feed it hard boiled eggs, and to serenade its ears with music, which always soothes the savage beast, you know. All of this comes at the confusion of Elisa’s chatty co-worker friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), when she begins to sense Elisa’s growing attraction to the creature.
Of course, this attraction is anathema to a racist and a sexist like Strickland, who sees the creature as merely something to be dissected and studied for use against the Russians. But to Elisa he’s just like her, a mute creature with a sensitive soul; he “doesn’t see what I lack, doesn’t see that I am incomplete”, as she signs passionately at one point. Elisa may see herself as incomplete, but thankfully Del Toro doesn’t depict her as such. It’s refreshing to see Elisa as a woman who is happy in her own skin, which makes it easier for us to accept her loving someone from a completely different species, for the merman is a gentle spirit regardless of his scary exterior. Meanwhile, Strickland, who has some weird fascinations of his own to contend with, may be handsome but he’s utterly revolting. When two of his fingers are bitten off and reattached to his hand, they continue to blacken and stink just like that black heart beating in his chest.
While unmistakably a love story, with big operatic moments of passion literally flooding the screen like tidal waves, Del Toro recognizes the world in which The Shape of Water enters. At a time when hatred and prejudice have stitched their way into our society’s fabric like never before, Del Toro brings a message of acceptance, love, and harmony that we could all use a lot more of. Of course, Del Toro expresses these themes by enveloping them in a story that is also pretty violent and surprisingly gripping. There are some seat-of-the-pants thrills, a couple of surprising twists, and a fair amount of blood spilled.
With her elven, expressive features Sally Hawkins is the ideal Del Toro leading lady. Without saying a word she expresses so much more emotion in her eyes and gestures, matching the wonderfully emotive turn by Doug Jones. In a career that has seen him vanish into one creature’s skin after another, Jones has finally hit his high water mark with this one. And while Shannon excels as the loathsome, bullying Strickland, we can’t overlook yet another delightful performance by Jenkins and the effectively powerful one by Michael Stuhlbarg as the secretive Dr. Hoffstetter. Whisking us from the mildewy labs of Occam to the sweeping currents of the deep blue sea are Alexandre Desplat’s haunting score and DP Dan Lausten’s superlative visuals, which may give Roger Deakins’ gorgeous Blade Runner 2049 a run for their money.
Del Toro has given us a small piece of cinematic magic with The Shape of Water. It’s funny; Del Toro hits me right in the wheelhouse with Hellboy and Pacific Rim but those films have nothing on The Shape of Water or Pan’s Labyrinth. Nobody does dark fairy tales better than him; he’s a true master of the art form and right now he’s at the height of his powers.