By Robert Yaniz Jr.
The Shape of Water might not be del Toro’s crowning achievement, but it’s pretty damn close.
Guillermo del Toro has always had a way with monsters. From his 1993 Spanish-language debut Cronos to the Gothic ghost story of his previous film, 2015’s Crimson Peak, the director has specialized in delving into the humanity behind otherwise-horrific creatures. It’s as if he is single-handedly keeping the classical aesthetic and romantic tone of the monster movies of yesteryears alive. So his take on an unlikely bond between a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) and a Creature from the Black Lagoon-esque amphibian man (del Toro regular Doug Jones) was not only the perfect fit but felt like a natural progression of everything del Toro had done to this point. With his recent Golden Globe win for Best Director and the film’s Oscar prospects growing ever stronger, The Shape of Water was poised to be a career highlight for one of the most passionate filmmaker’s alive.
The Shape of Water follows Elisa Esposito (Hawkins), a lonely woman who spends her nights cleaning up a research facility during the Cold War. With top-secret studies happening all around her, Elisa’s life has become sleepily routine, but when a grimacing government official (Michael Shannon) arrives with a new specimen, the aforementioned Amphibian Man (Jones), Elisa’s curiosity gets the better of her. To divulge any more about the film’s plot would rob it of its many intriguing twists and turns, especially with its breezy pacing covering a broader scope than is initially apparent. At its heart, The Shape of Water serves as a pointed social commentary on the oppression of anyone who’s different and the emotional disconnectedness that inevitably results. That’s a universal theme that would resonate anytime but one that feels especially relevant given the divisiveness in the air these days. The Cold War setting even underscores this vibe of dispassionate indifference (and, ultimately, outright disdain) perfectly, pitting Americans against Russians amidst a clear fantastical allegory.
It’s no surprise that Hawkins has been on the receiving end of stellar reviews and awards consideration for her performance. Though the actress has charmed audiences with her roles in films like Happy-Go-Lucky and Blue Jasmine, what she does here is decidedly next-level. Sure, the parallel between her wordless character and the creature she befriends may be a bit on the nose, but Hawkins’ effortlessly transcends this, delivering raw, textured that easily locks her a Best Actress slot. Jones — as the other half of the central coupling — does what he does best: bringing non-human characters to life with a distinct physicality and presence that never once leads you to question the reality of the creature you’re watching. He’s played a fish man before for del Toro (as Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films), but there’s an otherworldliness about his turn in The Shape of Water. Character actor Michael Shannon grits his way through a strong performance as the villain of the peace, essentially playing toxic masculinity incarnate. On the surface, his Richard Strickland is living the ideal American family life, but the monster within begins to creep out more and more as the story progresses. Shannon has largely made his career bringing despicable people to life. Yet, there’s something particularly chilling about him here. As the sole straight white male amid supporting cast of women, minorities and, yes, fish people, Shannon embodies the societal norms of the era, and del Toro wisely extends that theme throughout the outstanding supporting cast, most notably Richard Jenkins.
To simply say that The Shape of Water is a romantic thriller would be an understatement. Of course, the central love story — oh, yeah, del Toro definitely goes there — claims much of the runtime. But far more than that, del Toro’s film romanticizes so much of its world. The Shape of Water fondly embraces its period setting but also finds time to celebrate golden-age Hollywood (especially in a sequence that may test audiences’ willingness to accept del toro’s vision). Composer Alexandre Desplat does his part with one of the year’s best film scores, and the design of everything from the Amphibian Man himself to every element of production is as lovingly crafted as one might expect from the man who brought us the darkly beautiful images of Pan’s Labyrinth. From the haunting opening image of The Shape of Water, del Toro and his team create a world both reminiscent of a platonic ideal of classic Hollywood horror and yet simultaneously like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
It may seem hokey to declare The Shape of Water a film that speaks to this particular moment in history, but it’s true. del Toro’s tale of unexpected connection is a story that could have been told many different ways. However, with his decision to marry the tried-and-true trope of star-crossed love with the trappings of a Gothic horror film, del Toro has found the perfect companion piece to his own Pan’s Labyrinth. Though that Oscar-winning 2006 effort remains a superior film, both it and The Shape of Water are adult fairy tales that use classical setups to comment on much larger themes, and they incidentally represent the very best of del Toro. The Shape of Water is his id run amok, a pure distillation of how he sees the creative process and, at its best, the world he creates for. It also just so happens to be a powerful, evocative work that cements del Toro’s status as one of the most underrated visionaries working today.
The Shape of Water stars Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Richard Jenkins. It is directed by Guillermo del Toro and is now playing in theaters.