Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Doug Jones
Guillermo del Toro is a visionary unlike most working in entertainment today. Del Toro has been the architect of uniquely fantastic films like Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy films, and Pacific Rim as well as the outstanding and underrated television series, The Strain. He’s also a terrific artist whose published artwork notebook is brilliantly impressive and fascinating. His latest and most celebrated film to date, The Shape of Water, is no exception.
The Shape of Water is what del Toro does best, blending an imaginative plot against the backdrop of a real-world historical period. Set in the 1960s in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and an escalating Vietnam conflict, The Shape of Water follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a shy, sweet and vulnerable mute woman who lives above a Baltimore movie house and works as a janitor in a top-secret government research facility. Elisa lives a mostly simple and generally isolated existance, except for occasional visits with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and regular “chats,” for lack of a better word, with her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).
All of this abruptly changes, however, when Elisa’s research lab receives a new specimen from South America, an amphibious man-like creature. The creature is ushered into the facility late one evening during Elisa and Zelda’s shift, accompanied by government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and research scientist, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Strickland and Hoffstetler are united in a goal to know
more about the creature, but their methods and purposes beyond that couldn’t be more different. Hoffstetler desires to understand and study the creature while Strickland wants nothing more than to determine its usefulness to the United States government, and when Strickland is attacked by the creature, his methods become savage. When Elisa witnesses some of Strickland’s cruelty towards the creature, she becomes determined to save it and enlists the help of Zelda and Giles. Like Elisa, the creature can not communicate verbally, and she also senses the kindness in its soul. What emerges is a twisted Beauty and the Beast narrative that is both beautiful and at times rather horrifying.
Del Toro’s cast is perhaps the most magnificent part of the film. Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins give perfect performances. Both are always on top of their game, but never have their talents been showcased like they are here. Legend has it, del Toro pitched this film to Hawkins at an awards show years ago while drunk. He was quoted as saying, I was drunk and it’s not a movie that makes you sound less drunk.” This is exactly the sentiment one should undertake when viewing this film. Objectively, this is a film that can be written off as ridiculous, but when one looks beneath the surface (pun intended), there’s the makings of a masterpiece. The performances by the cast are outstanding, the direction is deliberate and poetic, and the score by Alexandre Desplat is perfection. Del Toro’s film is reminiscent of the style of French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet who directed the films Amélie and City of Lost Children, both of which have a distinct and almost fairy-tale like quality to them.
The Shape of Water is a finely crafted film from top to bottom. It is imaginative and it is spellbinding in a way few films are able to achieve. If I had seen it earlier, it would surely have been on my list of the top films of the year, but I am guessing the 13 Oscar nominations it received will suffice. The cinematic voice of Guillermo del Toro is one I hope only grows and persists. His films deserve to be “events” not unlike those of Christopher Nolan, which makes it fitting that del Toro and Nolan will be duking it out this year for Oscars in eight different categories including the two biggest: Best Picture and Best Director. A-
The Shape of Water is rated R with a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes.