‘The Shape of Water’ Is A Fantastical Masterwork (Movie Review)

Thinking about writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s work, it easy to see how much effort he puts into every aspect of his films. Del Toro’s best movies are ones that feel like a symphony of ideas all brought together brilliantly by his love for fantasy and horror. The Shape of Water is the latest example. This movie finds the director using the talents of himself and others to craft an unusual love story with no shortage of multi-layered characters, detailed sets and attention to the latest weird creatures del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor have come up with. The results show off the magic of cinema.

For this film, del Toro offers up a steampunk-influenced science fiction story as if it were told by Douglas Sirk. The Shape of Water is a vibrant melodrama that blends a monster movie with a fairy tale. The resulting emotions could be hard to take in if a lesser director were involved. With del Toro, the film manages to be romantic, violent, scary, comedic and more. But enough of the sappiness, let me get to the mute woman and fish face.

The story is set in 1960s Baltimore, during a time when Cold War paranoia has taken over. Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor, working at a government research facility. She and her co-worker and friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) clean up after the scientists who conduct mysterious tests and experiments.

There is plenty to already treasure in the design of both the facility Elisa works in, as well as her apartment. Happy to let all his influences run together, del Toro has crafted a scenario where Elisa lives above a movie theater and next to her friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted artist. Routines are quickly established, as far as how Elisa gets through living life as a curious mute. It appears to be lonely, and Hawkins deserves all the credit in the world for conveying so much through expressions and sign language. However, her world is soon thrown off balance by another arrival.

A new test subject is brought into the facility. It is an amphibious creature (an elaborately costumed Doug Jones) that calls to mind The Creature from the Black Lagoon, let alone Abe Sapien from del Toro’s Hellboy films. The “asset” is being researched by Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and tortured for the sake of cooperation by Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). Elisa interacts with the creature by chance and finds her own way to connect with it. Both are curious but tortured souls without the standard way of communicating. A relationship forms.

This is a heightened scenario, no doubt, and the film has less to say about the literal pairing of a woman and a creature than it does about two souls finding each other against the odds and what is perceived as the accepted standard. In letting the film show off this romantic development, there is a true beauty to be found in del Toro’s staging of scenes. A couple montages create a charming familiarity. The main set pieces show the levels of creativity out there to explore based on the settings we are made used to. We have seen unique worlds created by del Toro before, but The Shape of Water finds excellent uses of familiar places such an apartment to build into the fairy tale being told.

Fitting for del Toro, however, the good times had by Elisa and the creature must be balanced by the darker side of this fairy tale. Shannon embodies evil here through intolerance and violence. His agenda to preserve specific values makes him a relevant figure. Through all his posturing there is also a watchable presence to behold. It speaks to the man’s talents as a performer, but Shannon has proven again and again his effectiveness. His lanky features and odd timing (like a younger Christopher Walken) make him just as strange as an amphibious creature with razor-sharp claws. The difference is seeing how his action and the justifications for them play out.

Not looking to simplify things, The Shape of Water is also set on approaching the other characters with endearment and respect. It is no coincidence that the two leads are incapable of speaking, while the black woman and the gay man have a majority of the dialogue. The types of voices who would typically be silenced by authority get to express themselves in ways that make them stronger. Zelda is more than just a janitor. She’s a smart friend, devoted wife and her own kind of authority figure. Giles shares a sense of loneliness with Elisa, but finds confidence when needed and puts himself out there when he sees fit. Both Spencer and Jenkins are terrific, and the way this story folds them into everything else speaks to the effectiveness of the film.

With this setting, del Toro also gets to have a lot of fun building his world. He’s handled films set all over time, so it’s not surprising to see just how impressive his take on the Cold War is, but there are times when The Shape of Water practically feels like a mad scientist making all the right connections to find success. Stuhlbarg’s character could even be seen as a del Toro surrogate, given the empathy he has for the creature, while also being an outsider with no intentions of putting violence over the beauty of creation.

With such an elegant handle on all the moving pieces, it’s worth noting the glorious cinematography by Dan Lausten, another fantastic score by Alexandre Desplat and hats off to everyone else involved. In designing a film that speaks so much to what is loved about cinema, The Shape of Water feels like a film capturing a lot within a story that has a relatively small scope. That should be why it’s worth acknowledging the energy put in by all.

The Shape of Water is the rare film that feels like all of its aspects have stemmed from an auteur in a near-perfect manner. It helps that del Toro’s ability to bring his imagination to life as well as successfully collaborate with many yields such terrific results. That’s only made better by a story that truly resonates in so many ways. There’s a profound romantic drama unfolding in front of us, but it’s also this weird, seriocomic fairy tale involving a movie monster. With the combined efforts of incredibly skilled filmmakers and excellent performances all-around, it’s also one of the year’s bests.

  1. No Comments