Like his 2006 film, Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a dark fairy tale. It is also weird, beautiful, and the director’s best film to date.
Set in 1962, at the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water focuses on Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor working at the Occam Aerospace Research Center in Baltimore. Elisa, who was rendered mute by a childhood injury, is intelligent, perceptive, and has a vivid imagination. Her best friends are Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her co-worker at the research center, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), her neighbor from across the hall. One day at the lab, a new security specialist, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), arrives with a prize from the Amazon—an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) that the government wants to study and keep out of the hands of the Soviets. One of the doctors studying the creature, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is only interested in understanding him and figuring out where he comes from, while his superiors are more interested in dissecting him. Elisa is strangely drawn to Amphibian Man and she begins to spend her lunch breaks in the lab with him, earning his trust and affection. However, when the government decides enough is enough, the order to terminate the creature comes down and Elisa is desperate to free him. Will her plan succeed? Can love blossom between two individuals so vastly different?
Like I said, the details of the story are very weird, but what results from the script by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor is a beautiful love story that transcends the oddity of the specifics. When so many see “the other” in people different from them, The Shape of Water is a movie that is sorely needed in this day and age. Also, while this is a fairytale—similarities to The Little Mermaid are certainly there—it is most definitely not for the kids. This film earns its R-rating as Del Toro explores all the different aspects of the Amphibian Man interacting with the human world. While I loved the story and characters created here, there was only one scene that felt off to me. Elisa has a daydream where she is inserted into one of the golden age movie musicals she loves so much and she is able to tell Amphibian Man how she feels. It makes sense in the context of the film and what Elisa enjoys, but it came across as very cheesy and too on the nose for me. Also, it’s in this scene where Amphibian Man really looks like a guy in a suit, so it kind of ruins the illusion.
The cast is just fantastic all the way around. Top honors have to go to both Hawkins and Jones, who are required to wordlessly communicate and present their emotions to the audience. It’s twice as hard for Jones, who is disguised under the costume and prosthetics. Both do a lovely job and while it is strange to see a human woman and a fish man fall in love, you’ll forget all about it because the story is just a beautiful love story. Shannon is great as the antagonist, as he usually is, and there are moments in the film where he is truly terrifying. I also liked his quirky addiction to his green candies. Spencer and Jenkins handle most of the comic relief, but their characters are also suffering in their lives—Zelda with an inattentive husband and the general state of race relations in America at the time and Giles with both a failing art career and a secret he feels he cannot disclose. Stuhlbarg, one of my favorite character actors, is also great here and he also has a secret that he can’t share, though it’s far different from Giles’.
Overall, The Shape of Water is one of the best films of the year. It’s a wonderfully weird and imaginative story that will sweep you up and enthrall you. If you haven’t seen the trailers, stay away from them—the last one that came out kind of spoils the story. Definitely see this film if it’s playing near you.