The Shape of Water is without a doubt Guillermo del Toro’s finest work. An impressive boast when you consider how beloved Pan’s Labyrinth remains so many years later. Nonetheless, the film combines his genre sensibilities and artistic aspirations into one of the finest loves stories you will see this year.
And yes, it prominently features a gill man.
The films stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito, a janitor at an obscure government facility in a mythical American town that could easily be in the Midwest or the Eastern seaboard. Her life is dominated by routine and her late night shifts at the lab. But she has a few friends in the former of coworker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and seemingly disgraced commercial artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). But the routine is disrupted when a new project comes to the lab: a humanoid aquatic creature (Doug Jones) captured by government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). The hope is to use the creature’s adaptable respiratory system as a model for other badly needed developments. Unfortunately, the people in charge of the project cannot decide the best course of action. Strickland wants to dissect it while others, including Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) want to establish a rapport.
None of which matters to Elisa, whose own inability to speak allows her to establish non-verbal contact with “The Asset.” And as strange as it sounds, love soon blooms between them.
The premise feels likes the ultimate mashup of just about every film del Toro has ever made. It is sympathetic toward a monstrous looking creature; a running theme in the director’s work. The government facility and the look of The Asset recall the BPRD of Hellboy. The pace and tone are deliberate, as seen in his more “respectable” work like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. It also continues the lush romantic feel of Crimson Peak while setting aside all of that film’s horror trappings.
When the film was first announced, it was said to be a “Cold War love story” and that description remains the most apt. Set at the dawn of the Space Race, it manages to devote some time to that era’s views on masculinity, homosexuality, woman and even commercialism as the romance between Elisa and The Asset leads her to make a life-changing decision. Giles’s story, in particular, is devastating. The film even touches on race a little, though probably not enough as it should. Nonetheless, for a film which is already a creature feature and a love-letter to mid-1950s high melodramas, offering any glimpse of the reality behind the movieland fantasy of that era is an amazing feat.
Anchoring the film, of course, is Hawkins, who does an amazing job drawing the viewer into Elisa’s world while remaining mute. The character is a revelation as she is quietly, but powerfully, in control of her surroundings and, as it turns out, sexuality. It’s tough to say more without revealing one of the most unexpected sequences in the film, but Hawkins goes to surprising places and offers Elisa a rare confidence throughout.
Shannon is equally compelling as Strickland. A fierce defender of mid-20th Century values, his cause is shown to be corrupted by forces he really cannot understand. It the layering of his situation, and Shannon’s ability to convey Strickland as the wrong man for the job, which makes it one of his most compelling roles as an antagonist to date. Doug Jones also offers admirable work as The Asset, though the intricacy of his costume and the makeup effects means he has precious little screentime. Rounding out the cast are Spencer, Stuhlbarg and Jenkins. All are great and each gets to have a little more story than you’d expect from supporting characters in a typical monster movie.
Which is definitely part of del Toro’s intent as he plays with all the genre expectations in a fresh and compelling way. Make no mistake, the film is a primarily a fairy tale, but one which honors — and deflates — mid-century melodramas, monster flicks and WWII era musicals. Throughout the film, a 20th Century Fox biblical drama, The Story of Ruth, plays at the all-night theater under Elisa’s apartment. The film, about a Moabite who converts to the God of Moses but is initially shunned upon arrive in Bethlehem, presents a number of parallels to Elisa’s situation even as it mostly serves as background noise to the most momentous days of her life. This is just one example of the way del Toro uses aspects of the era to underscore his story. See also: the use of a Cadillac and the arrival of a restaurant chain to town.
Gorgeously lit by Dan Lausten, the film is also a feast for the eyes, offering its seemingly mundane setting a magical otherness fitting the sum of its various del Toro obsessions. Is it his ultimate work? Very nearly. It lacks for a true monster fight, but it is about as close as del Toro or his fans will ever get to creating the perfect monster movie love story.
The Shape of Water is in theaters now.