The Shape Of Water | Guillermo del Toro | December 1, 2017
Like a beautiful dream that is too good to be true, The Shape Of Water is a mesmerizing return to form for director Guillermo del Toro. While he had fun with the action-packed Pacific Rim and went gothic horror on us with Crimson Peak, the magical and surreal journey that del Toro (who shares co-writing credit with Vanessa Taylor) takes us on sees his talents on full display.
At its core, The Shape of Water is a fairy tale for adults, but it’s impossible to contain the description to just one genre, the way it blends so many genres impossibly with ease. You’ll find elements of romance, sci-fi, horror, noir and often charms its way in parts as a silent film.
The latter is led by the marvelous performance of Sally Hawkins, who will capture your heart with ease in what is the performance of her career. Hawkins stars as Elisa, a mute nightshift cleaning employee at a mysterious government research facility in the coastal region of Maryland, along with her friend and coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). She’s a curious dreamer wanting more from her life, not quite content with just spending time at home hanging with her artist friend and neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins). Things suddenly get more interesting for her when a peculiar asset is delivered to the facility under intense government and military scrutiny, overseen by the intense and intimidating Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), as well as the much warmer Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Fleming (David Hewlett).
Elisa can’t help but find out what exactly they’re hiding in the facility, and it turns out to be an aquatic humanoid creature wrestled from the Amazonian jungles where he was worshipped as a god with immense powers. This Amphibian Man (played to perfection by consistent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones) is understandably afraid of and violent towards Strickland, who is eager to experiment on the creature to possibly get ahead of the Russians during the Cold War.
The mute Elisa offers a warm and kind approach to the creature when no one is watching, and soon their budding friendship turns into something more romantic. While on the surface the idea may seem absurd, it’s the imaginative and sweeping romantic lens that del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsen frame it all through that allows you to suspend belief and completely buy into this. There’s a tremendous amount of sincere heart and soul to their relationship and there’s not a single word uttered between them, just the connective thread of sign language and loving looks and the shared passion of lovely music.
The great strength of The Shape Of Water is in Elisa’s shared relationships and their status as minorities and underdogs. Elisa lives a heartbreakingly lonely life as a mute, Giles is an elderly gay artist struggling to find love and acceptance through his work, and Zelda is an outspoken (at times) black woman during the troubling early 1960s. Thematically, it makes sense that it’s these three who join forces and take action to try and help save the Amphibian Man from Strickland’s brute force – proving that it isn’t the “other” that puts us in danger, but quite often man itself; certainly a theme that is perfectly relevant in today’s tense political climate.
While del Toro and Taylor’s script may not offer much surprise in the way it navigates its plot (what you think will happen more or less does), it wins you over by the sheer imagination and passion that is overflowing with glee. You can feel del Toro’s love for all sorts of classic forms of cinema in the countless influences and references that come flying at you from every angle, most fully felt from composer Alexandre Desplat’s classical score. The Shape Of Water is just a pure dedication and romanticism of the art form and I found myself totally enamored.
Del Toro has all the right pieces in place, and they’re brought home by the knockout performances from his cast. Sally Hawkins offers a sublime and moving Oscar-ready performance built on her expressions that radiated humanity and emotion. Richard Jenkins is equally moving as a lovesick misfit who just can’t quite catch a break. Michael Shannon is as fierce as ever and absolutely revels as a character that you will love to hate. Octavia Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg (who’s having one hell of a year, between Fargo, Call Me By Your Name, and the upcoming The Post) have more limited screen time, but make use of every frame they’re in. Finally, there’s the performance from Doug Jones as the Amphibian Man, who gives it a sense of warmth and humanity that you can’t help but fall prey to his charm.
It’s not an easy thing to juggle all the various tones and styles. There’s a surprising amount of dark violence that plays with elements of horror, but also countered with its honest approach to sexual moments which it boldly didn’t shy away from. The fact that del Toro has made a romantic film as dark as this is an achievement in itself. While the story may be on the predictable side, it’s the way that it’s told on such an imaginative and cinematic canvas with some truly remarkable performances that allowed me to overlook the lack of true surprise and just become totally swept away by it’s unshakably beautiful and charming nature.