5 out of 5 stars.
If you love movies and don’t love “The Shape of Water,” then I really don’t know what to tell you. Writer (along with Vanessa Taylor) and director Guillermo del Toro’s latest film is the type of gorgeous adult fairy tale he’s known for, imbued with an extra dose of love for film and film history as he masterfully weaves a story of loneliness, love, and obsession.
“The Shape of Water” is set in 1962 Baltimore—the height of the Cold War. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) was rendered mute from an injury she sustained as a baby. She works as a janitor for a secret research facility along with her longtime friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and is very close with her next door neighbor, a middle-aged artist named Giles (Richard Jenkins). Otherwise, Elisa is utterly alone, until a mysterious new asset is brought to the facility. Tasked with cleaning the lab where the asset is kept, Elisa and Zelda soon find that it is an amphibious man (played by del Toro regular Doug Jones) brought back from the Amazon by the facility’s new head of creature research, the cruel and controlling Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). Elisa quickly strikes up a bond with the creature, seeing in him someone who, like her, is alone and unable to speak. She brings him hard-boiled eggs for lunch, plays records, and teaches him some sign language so they can communicate. When Elisa finds out that Strickland’s superior, General Hoyt (Nick Searcy), wants to dissect the creature in the hopes that what they learn from him will give America an edge in the Space Race, she plots to break him out of the lab and set him free.
“The Shape of Water” is heavily inspired by other films and stories. It’s like a reverse “Beauty and the Beast,” or, more appropriately, a twist on the classic monster movie “Creature from the Black Lagoon,”—only this time, the creature is captured and taken back to civilization, and rather than the woman being repulsed by the creature, she falls in love in with him. Del Toro also uses film within the context of the story as an inspiration and escape for the characters. Elisa lives in an apartment above a movie theater, just barely able to hear the films playing below her. Giles is constantly seeking out old movie musicals playing on television to show to Elisa, who dances along, a precursor to a stunning dream sequence in the film’s third act that is possibly the best scene in the entire movie.
This is not the first time del Toro has used magical realism against the backdrop of war (see 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”). The film resembles reality just enough to be believable, and setting the story during the Cold War specifically allows del Toro to draw parallels between politics and society then and now, while still giving the audience the escapism they desire. Visually, the film is gorgeous and incredibly detailed, from hominess of Giles and Elisa’s apartments to the dreary lab to the neon lights of the theatre marquee. The design of the amphibian man is also very appealing, just exotic enough to be wary of him, but just human enough to sympathize with him—again, the similarities to “Creature from the Black Lagoon” are apparent here. Doug Jones’ moving performance has a lot to do with that; he never speaks, but he brings depth and feeling to the creature where otherwise there would be none.
Another character who doesn’t speak throughout the entire film is Elisa, but Hawkins delivers one of her most powerful performances through sign language and physical expression alone. She is immediately likeable, and her selflessness and determination as the film progresses is admirable. In fact, the entire cast is working at the top of their game here. Shannon is terrifying as Strickland single-mindedly goes after what he wants, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays the scientist and Soviet spy Dr. Hoffstetler, is wonderful as a man caught in a conflict not only between two countries, but between patriotism and his responsibility as a scientist.
“The Shape of Water” is a beautiful love story first and foremost, but besides that, it is a story about outcasts, and it’s a story that gives those outcasts their time in the spotlight. Elisa has never fully belonged because she is mute. Because she cannot speak, her friends often serve as her voice; the result is that Giles, a gay man, and Zelda, a black woman—two people who then and even now would be granted little to no opportunity to have a voice—do most of the talking in the film. Del Toro takes the time to explore the discrimination these three characters face in the workplace and in society, so when they aren’t long to hesitate to help Elisa save her friend, it isn’t hard to believe. Saving the amphibian man is more than just saving a friend—it is minorities and misfits taking a stand against those who oppress them. It is a message powerfully conveyed by a director letting his creative vision run wild, a creative vision that I wish more movies today had, but that when it is seen, it’s a reminder of just how magical movies can be.
Runtime: 123 minutes. Rated R.