The Shape of Water is a return for director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro to a style of filmmaking that he largely abandoned for his last few films — Hellboy: The Golden Army, Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak — although they all still retained a somewhat personal stamp from this most distinctive of genre auteurs. But his newest project finds Del Toro squarely back in the lush, deeply humane and fantastically surreal territory that he mined to near-perfection in Spanish-language movies like Cronos, his 2001 masterpiece The Devil’s Backbone, and his 2006 classic Pan’s Labyrinth. The Shape of Water deserves to stand proudly among these works, even if it doesn’t quite hit the same heights as the latter two films.
But that’s a minor thing: The Shape of Water is simply a gorgeous dark fantasy peopled with wonderfully drawn characters, laced with a frank sexuality (something new to the del Toro playbook) and layered in rich metaphorical meanings. In customary style, it’s filmed and designed to perfection as well, with the director creating a 1962 Cold War period piece that is exquisitely detailed and also relevant to the times at hand. His monster — or least what we first perceive as the monster — is unforgettable, inhabited once again by longtime del Toro collaborator Doug Jones in perhaps his finest non-human outing.
The movie’s central character is not the “river god” (as del Toro has described him) but Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning woman who works at a nearby military research facility with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who punches the time card for her perpetually late co-worker. Elisa’s day begins the same way each morning: making hard-boiled eggs for lunch, pleasuring herself in the bathtub, and indulging in some friendly repartee (via sign language) with her next door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay artist currently working freelance after being dismissed from a high-profile advertising agency over an undisclosed incident.
But everyone’s routine changes with the arrival at the facility of Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon) and his new find: an aquatic creature in humanoid shape that Strickland has captured in the Amazon. Strickland is of course disgusted by the thing, but the scientist accompanying him, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), sees it as an incredible discovery that must be analyzed and not destroyed. Elisa, meanwhile, soon comes to see the creature as a fellow living being, especially when she begins to communicate with it through rudimentary signing, an offer of food and, of course, the universal language of music.
Thus begins one of the strangest yet most beautiful courtships you will see this year, a melding of horror tale, Cold War sci-fi, musical homage, and romance that is not just a love letter to cinema in all its varied forms (it’s no accident that Giles and Elisa live above an old theater) but a tribute to the idea of love itself. The Shape of Water is also del Toro’s most forcefully stated argument in favor of the idea — going all the way back to the classic Universal Monsters — that beings unlike us are only monstrous on the surface, often misunderstood and only yearning for the same things as the rest of us. It’s not a new concept by any means, but by virtue of the times we live in, it makes The Shape of Water perhaps del Toro’s most politically astute film yet.
The cast is perfect: Hawkins delivers a performance that is equal parts melancholy, uplifting, sexually magnetic and righteous, making Elisa a complex, fully engaged human being without defining her by the simple notion that she does not communicate like the rest of us (and Hawkins can do more with her eyes than many actors strive for with pages of dialogue). Jenkins is elegant and heartfelt as usual, wearing his resignation and broken heart on his sleeve until his spirit is revived by the events unfolding around him. Shannon takes what could have been a stock military heavy and turns him into something more complicated as well. We go home with the guy and see him interact (in his own unsettling way) with his family, which we never usually see in a story like this. His conflation of a new car with the promise of sex makes for one of the oddest character quirks in a movie that pulses with them.
And then there’s Jones; in a full prosthetic suit with just minor CG enhancements, he projects fear, nobility, menace, and mystery without saying a single word. Gleaming and scaled, his black eyes lustrous and shining, the creature is both majestic and utterly alien, yet when he and Elisa physically connect it feels as natural as any act of love between two human beings might be. As with the rest of the elements involved with this movie, the creature is a triumph of design and effects craftsmanship yet suffused with a compassionate, humanistic quality.
That quality runs throughout the film, and, as I said earlier, if it’s not as emotionally devastating as del Toro’s earlier, Spanish-language movies, it’s only because once the story reaches a certain point, the viewer pretty much knows where it’s going the rest of the way. That is perhaps the one thing that keeps The Shape of Water from being the masterwork it could be: there is an inevitable trajectory in which the way the narrative plays out that leaves very little room for an unexpected development, a sudden surprise or late twist, and those who anticipate any of those may come away a bit disappointed.
Even with that baked into the script, which somewhat diminishes the stakes as the movie reaches its endgame, The Shape of Water still has plenty to offer in terms of its characters, its visual beauty, its wonderful atmosphere and the sensitivity that del Toro can bring even to a story that, on its surface, may resemble a more romantic version of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. But going beyond the surface to find the truth beneath is what The Shape of Water is all about.
The Shape of Water is out in theaters this Friday (Dec. 1).