Guillermo del Toro is the king of oddities. Throughout his storied career, he’s taken on everything from comic book adaptations and horror films to giant alien robots, yet the writer-director never fails to impassion his dark fantasy tales with beauty, heart and magic—everything you’d ever want from a trip to the movies. His most recent, The Shape of Water starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer, is no different. Incorporating del Toro’s love of whimsy and creature features, a friend had mentioned the film was a combination of Amelie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Beauty and the Beast. I’ve yet to think up a more perfect formula.
Set during the Cold War, an American high-security government lab hides a top-secret experiment. Elisa (Hawkins), working as a janitor in the lab, soon discovers an aquatic creature hidden in the depths of a murky tank. He’s part Gill-man from Creature and part Abe Sapien from the Hellboy series. The amphibian man and Elisa, who’s mute from an accident during her childhood, spark a friendship over their love of hard-boiled eggs that blossoms into much more. They communicate via sign language and connect on a deep level as the film unfolds.
Elisa overhears plans to dissect and dispose of the creature, so she seeks aid from her friends Giles (Jenkins) and Zelda (Spencer) to break him free and house him in Giles’ apartment. Shannon’s agent and the military are the foils to her plan and inter-species love affair, as the group of friends race to escape and later harbor their secret of the missing “asset.”
Del Toro packs in so many beautiful Hollywood references and visual sequences, including a black and white dance number that finally gives Hawkins voice…literally. Everything about the film is graceful and flowing, from all its exceptional performances and character dynamics, to the ethereal underwater scenes. It’s a poetic piece of work, both in style and substance.
Doug Jones gives a dynamo performance as the amphibian man. His physicality is seasoned, thanks to prior otherworldly gigs such as Abe Sapien, the Pale Man in Pan’s Lapyrinth, and non-del Toro spots in Buffy and Lady in the Water, among others. The success of Jones’ performance is crucial in order to sell the humanity of the creature and the relationship Elisa is able to form with him. It’s clear why del Toro leans heavily on Jones (Shape is the sixth collaboration between the actor and director). Jones brings personality to each beastly being he becomes, but never loses the feral instinct beneath that gives his characters mystery. We both understand the amphibian man, yet can also fear him. As the movie progresses, we soften up to him and get pulled underwater right along with Elisa. There aren’t many actors that can pull this off.
The Shape of Water is about finding love where you least expect it, and the beauty of feeling vulnerable and out of one’s element. The film spotlights the power of non-verbal communication and how words aren’t the only crutch we have to help us feel understood. (We’re just mammals after all.) Elisa and the amphibian man sign, gesture, emote and touch, connecting more with each encounter than some people do in a month.
Every aspect of this movie—its script, supporting actors, music, visuals, comic relief—is nearly perfect. It’s a grossly imaginative piece that almost shouldn’t work, but does. All the elements fit together like puzzle pieces transforming this unique fairy tale into one of the year’s best love stories and art films. The Shape of Water is not only sublime on its own, but it takes the best facets of del Toro’s work and stitches them all together. That alone speaks volumes. Grade: A