One day in some film school a hundred years from now, the work of Guillermo del Toro will be brought up (because duh), and one student will eventually raise their hand and ask why we never just give him all the money in the world and let him do whatever he wants, and the instructor won’t be able to respond in a way that doesn’t make us all look like colossal fools for allowing this to happen. You can write up an entire book on all the projects that the acclaimed director had to drop either due to not being given the resources to do it, or just plain bad luck. Thankfully, those missed opportunities don’t stop him from continuing to be one of the most masterful and idiosyncratic filmmakers out there right now, and with his latest film, which he co-wrote with Vanessa Taylor, The Shape of Water, he does not disappoint.
The Shape of Water takes place in the early 60s, in the midst of the Cold War, and it follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a cleaning lady rendered mute from a childhood incident that left her with scars on her neck, who works in a secretive government facility where she discovers a recently captured “Asset.” The Asset (Doug Jones) turns out to be a Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon-esque amphibious humanoid from South America, and Elisa makes an immediate connection with it. But that all falls into jeopardy when Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) decides that the Asset is most useful being killed, and dissected so they can learn more about it, putting themselves ahead of the Soviets.
So, think of it like E.T., but with adults, and in the 60s, and it has a lot more fucking.
I kid around, but I wanna make one thing clear, The Shape of Water is another stellar addition to an already stellar filmography, and I’d even go as far as to say it might be one of the maestro’s best yet. It combines elements of classic Hollywood romantic melodramas, old Universal horror, 50s B-movies, and espionage thrillers to craft a fairy tale that makes for a far better live action Beauty and the Beast than the one we got earlier this year.
The film is many things, but it is mainly a love story, one that is full of heart and whimsy, and completely devoid of cynicism. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa with passion, control, and a dash of comic and musical physicality. She is able to effortlessly communicate every urge and feeling with clarity and earnestness. She understands what it’s like to feel alone, and seemingly broken (as deemed by society), which builds a foundation of empathy when she sees the Asset being in distress, and seeks to communicate with it. Once the admittedly out-there romance begins, you completely understand what brought the characters together, and you buy where it goes.
The supporting cast is just as wonderful. Michael Shannon brings his particular, intimidating presence to a familiar archetype, and there are enough interesting touches that add more depth to the character. Richard Jenkins is an absolute joy as Elisa’s friend, Giles, a closeted artist. Octavia Spencer is funny and delightful as Zelda, Elisa’s co-worker at the government facility. Michael Stuhlbarg is also a treat as Robert Hoffstetler, a scientist who works for Strickland, who has ulterior motives. And of course, Doug Jones continues to do incredible work under all the insane amount of costume and makeup work, bringing an animalistic side to the performance but also a more gentle and emotional element, and all without being able to speak. Everyone is great in the film, but at the end of the day, it’s Hawkins’ moment to shine. It rests on her shoulders, and she is more than capable.
As you’d expect, the film is gorgeous on all fronts. Guillermo del Toro’s attention to detail never ceases to astound me, and while this film in particular may not be as showy as his last film Crimson Peak, where a haunted house is practically another character in the film, the designs, color palette, and details within the various environments are still just as captivating and do so much in informing the world and the characters that inhabit it. It’s very much a stylized look at the early 60s, but it’s one that is bent on honing in on the aesthetics and thematic ground that the filmmakers are building the film upon. I find it fascinating how Guillermo del Toro crafts these worlds that, despite being filled with the wonders of fantasy and fairy tales and fables, are filled with so much darkness and violence and hate, and yet he manages to shine a light on a sense of hope for a better, more positive future that makes you want to reach into the screen and be a part of it.
Though, as with any GDT film, there are some things that may not work for some. Typical of his English language work is the rather broad characters, and on-the-nose dialogue. Whenever he reaches for allegory, or metaphor, even in his Spanish films, his approach is rarely, if ever, subtle. Those same quirks are still present here, and if those things bothered you in his previous work, they might do the same here. I never considered it a problem. In fact, it’s one of the things I find most endearing about his work.
As if I couldn’t make it any more clear, I absolutely adored The Shape of Water. I loved the film the whole way through, but it wasn’t until one very specific moment that it became my favorite film of 2017 so far. I won’t give it away, but it’s a moment that under the hands of lesser talent could’ve easily, unintentionally invited laughter from an audience. When it happened, my jaw hit the floor, and I knew immediately that Guillermo del Toro and his cast and crew really made something special. The Shape of Water is a timely, bold, audacious, and expertly crafted love story, rich in emotion, artistry, and the kind of “movie magic” that seems to rare (and so much more necessary) nowadays. It’s an experience that floored me, and it would be disingenuous me to say anything but “run, don’t walk to the nearest cinema and watch The Shape of Water!”
Oh, and please watch Crimson Peak, it was poorly marketed so it didn’t find its audience at release, and it’s really great.