A new film by Guillermo del Toro is always a big deal. After directing the modern-day masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro became a director with enough clout to push artistic boundaries without major pushback from the studios; he brings his macabre sensibilities to mainstream movies. His last two pictures, Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim, were aimed at a broad audience and felt like watered-down GDT, but his latest film, the noir-flavoured fairy-tale, The Shape of Water, is Guillermo del Toro pure and uncut.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a lowly cleaning lady who works the night shift at a top-secret government laboratory. She lives alone in a creaky apartment above a movie theatre (aptly named The Orpheus). Elisa is mute, so her only two friends, Giles (Richard Jenkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), communicate with her through sign language. Giles is an elderly artist who Elisa checks in on with a daily care package. Her co-worker Zelda is also her partner in crime. Side by side, the duo spend their night shifts making (one-sided) small talk as they scrub toilets and mop up pissy floors.
Elisa’s banal routine takes a turn when a government agent named Strickland (a delectably villainous Michael Shannon) arrives with a mysterious container holding “The Asset.” Before being ordered out of the area, Elisa sees an inhuman hand reach out and touch the container’s glass portal. Shortly after, Strickland is injured by The Asset, and Elisa is sent in to clean up the bloody mess. Left alone in the containment area, Elisa’s curiosity gets the best of her, and she discovers a humanoid creature (Doug Jones) lurking in the container’s murky water. More curious than afraid, Elisa returns every night, and the two of them form a connection. After word gets out that the higher-ups have decided to dissect The Asset, Elisa makes it her mission to help her new friend escape its captors.
Guillermo del Toro has crafted a stylized fantasy world that takes place Cold War-era America, and like the Cold War, the film presents a pleasant façade with untold horrors hidden just below the surface. Sidewalks glow beneath a movie theatre’s dazzling marquee, people order pie at diners where the booths are covered in red vinyl, and classic tunes flow out from every radio. Although by fantasy film standards The Shape of Water is relatively grounded, the world has a seductive, dream-like quality.
This is a Guillermo del Toro movie, and its dark and twisted elements are a major selling point. The Shape of Water is as haunting and atmospheric as anything in his filmography — for all you gamers, many scenes in the film evoke memories of Bioshock. Chilly blues and faded greens add colour to sets draped in shadows, and each location feels like it has a story behind it. Small details like chipped paint on window frames and cracked tiles on bathroom walls adds to the lived-in aesthetic.
The costume designers, production designers, and VFX teams have all brought their A-games, and it shows. I can’t begin to imagine how many months they spent perfecting every facet of Doug Jones’ creature makeup down to the last fish scale. This is a movie that demands multiple watches to soak up all the visual flourishes. The Shape of Water has the makings of a film that will inspire cosplayers and fuel fan art from now until forever.
We need to talk about Sally Hawkins. She turns in the calibre of performance many actors spend years working towards. Hawkins shows us who this woman is during the opening ten minutes without the need for narration, exposition dumps, or even dialogue. She expresses herself through her daily routine, her kind gestures, and especially those dazzling eyes. At first glance, you may take her as meek, but that’s not the case; she never feels like a wilting rose. There’s a devilishness in Elisa’s gaze that hints at her steely resolve.
Elisa is instantly lovable, but what makes the character pop are the people who surround her. Zelda is loud, brash, and does enough talking for the two of them — I get the sense it would be that way even if Elisa could speak. But Zelda never comes off as domineering; instead she’s protective and fiercely loyal. Meanwhile, Richard Jenkins’ next bad performance will be his first bad performance. The man is a dynamo who brings world-class acting to each role he takes on. As Giles, he’s the film’s big bleeding heart. He’s charming, sentimental, and as sweet as the pies he keeps in his fridge. Like Zelda, he thinks the world of Elisa. The Shape of Water only reaches such emotional highs if we buy into the love between these three outsiders. Their love and respect for each other sets the tone of the film, and I can’t imagine anyone else inhabiting these roles.
Guillermo del Toro mined his Gothic influences and crafted a noir-style fairy tale. The Shape of Water is a timeless story about the downtrodden that feels of the moment. It’s a story of dreamers, outsiders, and the voiceless (literally and figuratively) who find solace only when they’re together. Peel back the genre movie layers — the sea creature, top secret lab, and evil government agents — and you’ll discover a profound yearning to love and be loved. Ultimately, The Shape of Water is a story about love and its intractable desire to touch us all, humans and monsters alike.