From horror movies like “Cronos” and “Mimic” to fantastical whimsy like “Pan’s Labyrinth” to modern day monster movies like “Pacific Rim,” director Guillermo del Toro is a master of genre filmmaking. Hell, he can even tackle the comic book genre with ease like “Blade II” and the “Hellboy” movies. With his latest film” The Shape of Water,” del Toro is starting to combine elements of his favorite genres into one glorious cinematic experience.
“The Shape of Water” follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) a mousy woman who is mute and works as a cleaning lady at a top secret government base in Baltimore. She lives a rather humdrum kind of life that’s full of simplicity and masturbating in bathtubs. Her life is turned upside down when a mysterious Amphibious Man (Doug Jones) from South America is brought to the base in shackles, only to be experimented on by military scientists and officers led by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Throughout the film, Elisa befriends the Amphibious Man, who is something out of The Creature From The Black Lagoon and referred to as the “asset,” as a group of supporting characters try to help the creature escape back in the wild.
Guillermo del Toro is really good at setting a mood and tone with all of his movies. From the opening of “The Shape of Water,” you know exactly what kind of movie this is going to be, but he somehow exceeds all those expectations as it unfolds. On its surface, it’s a fairy tale about a princess, Elisa, finding her prince, the creature, but throughout there’s a lot of genre fun with blood, violence, and sex. Del Toro has a knack for creating a great fantasy story that’s completely relatable to audiences that want pure escapism and drama.
It’s almost as if everything is “juiced” a bit with the way characters and subplots are introduced. From Elisa’s eccentric next door neighbor and commercial artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker and friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) to the double agent and scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), the movie feels fully fleshed out and lived in, as if the story and characters will continue to live on long after the end credits roll.
The best decision del Toro made is opting for a creature made with an elaborate costume and makeup instead of with CGI motion capture. The physicality of the creature is what makes this movie special, especially if you consider the great abilities of Doug Jones, who can convey so much pathos in his performance without saying a single word.
The same goes for Sally Hawkins, who delivers a wonderful silent performance. She gives the movie a real point-of-view, as a woman who feels unsatisfied with the routine of everyday life. Hawkins can say so much with her eyes and her movement that it’s quite fitting that she’s paired with someone like Jones, who is known for playing non-speaking roles. Hawkins is curious and warm, while she can also be very stark and angry in a natural way.
Michael Shannon is also very good as a very angry and unfulfilled man who will stop at nothing to get the job done, in this case ending the Amphibious Man’s life. That’s why you cast someone like Michael Shannon in this role, he’s really good at playing an over-the-top bad guy like he did as General Zod in “Man of Steel.”
There might be a few elements that might turn off viewers, such as an elaborate black & white song and dance sequence and a really bizarre interspecies sex scene, but I just think it’s Guillermo del Toro fully taking the characters and concept to its next logical conclusion. After all, Elisa loves watching old movies and this movie is ostensibly a romance between a woman and a bipedal sea creature. If you’re on board with the opening scene, which involves an underwater daydream as told through a morning routine, then I think the far-out-moments fit the movie you’re watching.
“The Shape of Water” is quite an achievement in Guillermo del Toro’s filmography. It’s one of his rare movies that is equally visually stunning as it is emotionally resonant. It has a floaty quality to it that you just don’t see a lot of in genre or art-house movies.
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A
Overall – A-