Far and away the best of Guillermo del Toro’s English language features, The Shape of Water, like Dr. Frankenstein stitching together disparate appendages, conjoins the romanticism of the 1930s Classic Universal Monsters Movies, the conspiratorial grit of the 70s Hammer Films and a splash of Max, Mon Amour to craft a truly one-of-a-kind, genre-bending splat of modern monster cinema. Breathtaking, adorable and fundamentally weird as hell, The Shape of Water is a slice of well-germinated fan fiction that’s so much more than its leaflet thin description of Deaf Girl falls for Fish Man could possibly describe.
It doesn’t take much Freudian analysis to trace del Toro’s inspiration for the film back to his childhood. According to his own notes, the young Chewbacca-type was enamored with the Creature from the Black Lagoon but longed to see the titular Gill-Man and Julie Adam’s Kay Lawrence get it on. Like full penetration style. A smarter man could unravel the vast network of the sexual symbolic significance of del Toro pining for a sea creature procreating with a human woman but I’m happy to acknowledge del Toro’s kinky side and embrace the fact that he’s given his fetish cinematic form.
The Shape of Water is that, certainly, a monstrous and modest example of Man-Child wish fulfillment but moreso is it something truly greater, the dazzling level of love of craft poured into each shot displaying a filmmaker working at his absolute peak, toiling from a place of pure, unchecked passion without much thought to the fact that his central conceit is wildly off-color and potentially repulsive to some, no matter how rose-colored the glasses you’re looking at it through.
Regardless, The Shape of Water remains a frilly love letter, one written in cursive with the biggest of loops and swoops, to cinema’s past. Standing shamelessly for putting sex in the creature feature, del Toro’s movie feels like a protest against the norm. In many ways, The Shape of Water has the potential to do for monster movies what last year’s La La Land did for musicals. Bringing us back full-circle to a romanticized and classical way of filmmaking that just doesn’t exist all that often anymore. Like Damien Chazelle, del Toro doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel so much as present it for the staggering creation it is. He brings an outdated art form back in a big way, altering the formula in such a manner to make it feel fresh, alive and reeling with purpose.
Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa Esposito, a night janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. The year is 1960something and the Cold War simmers in the forefront of every government officials mind. A valuable asset, the aforementioned creature (Doug Jones), has been captured and brought in for experimentation by the wicked and efficient Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). When Elisa happens upon The Creature, they strike up a most unusual bond, sharing hard-boiled eggs and swooning to old 45’s. With the government deciding upon malicious ends for their underwater prisoner, Elisa enlists closeted neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), Soviet spy/scientist Dmitri/Bob (Michael Stuhlbarg) and sassy co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) to help save her newfound love.
Pushing the envelope in oddly charming ways, not least of which it stands repeating involves at one point a fully denuded female visibly copulating with a sentient Merman, The Shape of Water completes the impossible by putting elegance in an interspecies relationship. One should not understate the near impossibility of that task. The fact that del Toro makes us, like him, thirst for the undying love between woman and big ole Sea Monkey is a mighty accomplishment and speaks to the boundless passion he has poured into this story and its realization.
Mileage may vary for audience members, taking again into the account the story centers around a sea-creature from a far away lagoon swooning for a mute custodian and the shady government plot that inadvertently ties them together, but to del Toro’s credit he has made an inspired tale of communication beyond words and love beyond boundaries that transcends what some might perceive as wholly unnatural relations. The characters, odd, offbeat and non-human as they are, are instruments to deliver this story but they, and their oddities, are essential to its telling.
Hawkins is nothing short of stunning, her performance a revealing tour de force that holds little back. Limited to acting with her eyes and body language, she embodies the soul of a misunderstood spirit falling head over heels in first love. “He the only person I’ve ever met who doesn’t see me as incomplete,” she signs to Giles, fire and passion raging behind her eyes, propelling her emotions in the only way she can.
She’s not the only monstrous acting talent on display. Shannon is a cruel and effective villain, the real monster of the film no doubt but one motivated by unsympathetic superiors and caged sexual deviance. A scene exploring his abnormal bathroom habits exhibits del Toro’s ability to rustle together playful and discomforting tones, probably the best description of the film’s overall feel. Otherwise, Stuhlbarg is reliably great, Jenkins a warm and delicate presence and Spencer a spirited burst of cocked-eyebrow energy, per usual. It should come as no surprise that this is one of the best ensemble casts of 2017.
To say that nearly every element of The Shape of Water is a success wouldn’t be fibbing. The score from Alexandre Desplat has a timeless feeling to it; it’s endlessly charming when it needs to charm, electrifying when we’re required on the edge of our seat; Paul D. Austerberry’s production design is aces, the film drowns in this ocean blue, soaking wet aesthetic that emanates this sensual but creepy world; and the creature design is nothing short of righteous, a perfect throwback to the era of practical effects reigning supreme that uses just the right intermitted splashes of CGI. To say I loved The Shape of Water really would be an understatement, the film inspiring in me such a range of emotions that it left me reeling by its stunning final frame, unsure how to process exactly what I’d seen outside of the fact that I knew from the bottom of my heart that I had witnessed an article of supreme originality that I wouldn’t be forgetting anytime soon.
CONCLUSION: ‘The Shape of Water’ shucks convention in making a throwback to the monster movies of yesteryear, showcasing Guillermo del Toro’s soaring visual style and a breathtaking lead performance from Sally Hawkins while telling a love story from the most bizarre, and somehow moving, of angles. Fans of esoteric erotica, prepare to swoon.