Guillermo del Toro's genre-hopping "The Shape of Water" is a swooning love story, a valentine to classic cinema, and a celebration of anyone who's ever felt like an outsider. It's also the story of a woman who falls in love with an amphibious fish monster. Like "Amélie" meets "Creature from the Black Lagoon," it's a movie seemingly designed to hit all my buttons, highlighting influences from fairy tales, old Hollywood, and horror in equal measure. But the resulting film feels like something only del Toro could create.
Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute woman who works as a cleaner in a top secret government research facility. Living in a tiny apartment above a rundown movie palace, she leads an existence of regimented routine -- established in an opening montage that shows her daily morning ritual of waking up, preparing her meal, and getting ready for work, with a short digression for a bit of self-pleasure in the bath while she waits for her eggs to boil.
Elisa's closest friends are her neighbor Giles (a heartbreaking Richard Jenkins), a closeted struggling illustrator who pines for the handsome counterman at the local diner, and her fiercely loyal co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).
One day, a new project arrives at the science lab, a monstrous "Amphibian Man" (as he's named in the credits), captured in the rivers of South America. Intimidating government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives along with the creature, and while the scientists set about poking and prodding to learn what they can from the beast, he's tasked with keeping him from falling into the hands of the Soviets. By any means necessary.
Perhaps recognizing a fellow lonely soul, Elisa has an immediate curiosity toward the creature. She begins by offering him a hard-boiled egg, then playing her jazz records for him, and teaching him basic sign language. The two form a connection that quickly blossoms into something more. Before too long, she's plotting a way to break him out of the facility and set him free -- like a decidedly adult version of "Free Willy."
Hawkins is mesmerizing, in one of the finest performances of the year. Silent, but endlessly expressive, she conveys so much emotion without uttering a word. Doug Jones, del Toro's go-to creature guy, plays the amphibian man with a dancer's grace. The director shoots him in a way that makes us understand Elisa's attraction -- I suspect the film's going to inspire some unexpected feelings in viewers, and we're all just have to accept that.
The film is set in Baltimore in the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War. It's a time when America was all about bold design and bright visions of the future, but those gleaming surfaces covered an ugly rot at the heart of our society. Working from a script he co-wrote with Vanessa Taylor, del Toro turns "The Shape of Water" into a story for the misunderstood and marginalized. He understands the wide gulf between talk of American values and how they tend to be put into practice. More often than not, they're used as a weapon to beat down anyone seen as "other."
Where Eliza sees something miraculous in the creature, Strickland only sees "an affront." This country has a way of making life hell for anyone who isn't a straight, white male, and the film underlines how Strickland's hatred of the amphibian man is just an extension of the daily discrimination faced by Zelda and Giles. The messages isn't subtle, but let's be honest, this is 2017 and the need for subtlety went out the window a long time ago.
As you might expect for a Guillermo del Toro film, it also looks stunning. Incorporating every shade of green you can imagine, production designer Paul D. Austerberry never loses sight of the heart and soul that the technical artistry is meant to support.
A tender and evocative romantic fable, "The Shape of Water" is a sensitive monster movie in the tradition of "King Kong" and "Frankenstein." A moving tale overflowing with empathy for the damaged, lonely beings of the world, it's the type of bold, visually dazzling storytelling that only the movies can provide. And it's absolutely magical.