“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Blade II” and “The Devil’s Backbone” should be more than enough proof of how Guillermo Del Toro is a cinematic god among directors. If you need further proof of this, then I suggest you watch “The Shape of Water,” his romantic fantasy which is truly one of the best films of 2017. While I tend to scoff at romantic movies as I consider them cringe-inducing exercises in endurance which prove to be even more painful than running the Los Angeles Marathon. Please keep in mind, I have run this marathon seven years in a row, and soon I will be running it yet again.
“The Shape of Water” transports us back to Baltimore, Maryland in the year 1962 when America was stuck in the middle of the Cold War. We meet Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a janitor at a secret laboratory who was rendered mute at a young age due to a neck injury. She follows a daily routine of pleasuring herself in the bathtub while boiling eggs on her kitchen stove, and then she goes to work where she performs her duties without complaint. Luckily, she has a pair of friends to converse with, in a matter of non-speaking, like artist and closeted homosexual Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her ever so talkative co-worker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) who also takes the time to interpret Elisa’s sign language. But even with friends like these, let alone the luck she has living above a movie theater, there is clearly something missing from her life.
Things, however, quickly change for Elisa when the laboratory she works at receives a creature in a tank. This creature was captured in South America by the cold-hearted Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and the government officials he answers to want to dissect the creature in an effort to gain a foothold on the space race. Elisa, however, has different ideas as she develops a strong connection with the creature which will not be easily broken.
I guess this might seem like a strange love story for many to take seriously, but considering the seismic shifts in how the world views, and should view, marriage and the rights of others, “The Shape of Water” could not have been timelier. As improbable as a relationship like this one may sound, Del Toro and his cast make it one we quickly become engaged in to where we are swept up emotionally in a way few movies can.
Along with cinematographer Dan Laustsen, Del Toro gives this film a look which is at once suffocating and yet wondrous. We clearly in the world of movies while watching this one, but the while this might seem like a genre picture designed to take us out of reality, it is filled with genuine emotion which is never easily earned. We can always count on Del Toro to give us a beautifully realized motion picture, but this one deserves special recognition as it had a budget of around $20 million, and yet he made it look like cost so much more. I would love to ask him how he accomplished what he did on a limited budget. In any other case, $20 million is a lot of money. But for a film like this, it seems almost too low to work with.
Sally Hawkins has wowed us as an actress in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Made in Dagenham” and “Blue Jasmine,” but she really outdoes herself here as Elisa Esposito as this role takes her into Holly “The Piano” Hunter territory. With her character being a mute, Hawkins not only has to communicate without the use of words (vocally anyway), she has to keep her heart open in a way which we make a habit of avoiding. This actress shows little hesitation in making herself so open and vulnerable to a creature everyone else would be quick to be infinitely fearful of.
Speaking of the creature, he is played by Doug Jones, an actor who is masterful at portraying non-human characters. Whether it’s as Abe Sapien in the “Hellboy” movies, the Faun and the Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth” or even as Lieutenant Commander Saru on “Star Trek: Discovery,” Jones always succeeds in finding a humanity in these characters others would never be quick to discover or find. His performance here as the Amphibian Man is every bit as good as Andy Serkis’ in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and I put these two actors together because many believe it is the makeup or special effects which do all the acting for them, but it’s their acting which makes their characters so memorable. Jones, like Hawkins, has to communicate without the use of words, but he has an even bigger challenge as his character cannot even use sign language. His work deserves more credit than it will likely get at awards time.
“The Shape of Water” also has a terrific cast of character actors, and they are the kind who never ever let us down. Richard Jenkins is right at home as Giles, a closeted gay man who, when he tries to reach out to someone he cares about, is quickly rebuffed not just by that someone, but also by a society which thoughtlessly excluded many for all the wrong reasons. Jenkins never resorts to giving us a cliched version of a homosexual, but instead makes us see Giles as a man who is kind and considerate but still ostracized to where he is willing to break the rules to help a friend who doesn’t judge him in the slightest.
When it comes to Octavia Spencer, you can never go wrong with her, and she is a wonderful presence here as Zelda Fuller, Elisa’s co-worker who is never at a loss for words. She also makes it clear how Zelda is a force to be reckoned with, and this is something the character’s husband really should have taken into account a long time ago.
There is also Michael Stuhlbarg who portrays Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, the scientist who sees far more value in the Amphibian Man being alive as opposed to becoming a glorified science experiment worthy of dissection. This is a typical role you find in genre films, but Stuhlbarg inhabits the role to where Robert can never be dismissed as a simple stock character. Even as we learn there is more to Robert than what we initially see on the surface, Stuhlbarg makes us see this is a man who values understanding and compassion over greed. You know, the kind of person we would love to see in the White House at this moment.
But one actor I want to point out in particular is Michael Shannon who portrays Colonel Richard Strickland, a man hellbent on putting his country before everything else, including his wife and kids. Shannon succeeds in rendering Strickland into a more complex character than you might expect. As we watch Strickland get berated by his superiors for not doing his job like they want him to, Shannon shows us a patriotic American who wants to serve his country well, but we watch as his spirit becomes as corrupted and diseased as those two fingers of his which were torn off his hand by the creature and reattached with limited success. As the movie goes on, those fingers of his become a disgusting color as they come to represent the corruption of his soul. Other actors would be intent on making you despise such a villainous character, but Shannon makes you see a man whose desperation has forever blindsided his worldview.
Whether or not you think “The Shape of Water” breaks any new ground in the world of motion pictures is irrelevant. All that matter is how it is a beautifully realized film which takes you on an incredible voyage only the best of its kind can. It also reminds you of how valuable a filmmaker Del Toro is in this day and age when distinct voices in the world of cinema are continually minimized and rendered silent for the sake of profit. Here’s hoping you get to see it on the big screen where it belongs before Donald Trump leads us into a war no one in America is prepared to be drafted into.