the shape of water

Thank the movie gods for Guillermo del Toro. One of our best living filmmakers, del Toro crafts gorgeous, poetic films that combine genres to great effect. No one working today is making movies like the Crimson Peak filmmaker, and with The Shape of Water, del Toro may have made his masterpiece.

The Shape of Water is a poetic love story set during the Cold War, after John F. Kennedy’s Camelot has come to a tragic close. “The end of Camelot [was] the peak of the promise of the future,” del Toro said, “jet-fin cars, super fast kitchens, television, everything that if you’re white, Anglo-Saxon, heterosexual, you’re good. But if you’re anything else, you’re not so good. Then when Kennedy is shot and Vietnam escalates, and the disillusionment of that dream occurs, I don’t think that has healed.”

This is a love story, yes, but it’s about so much more. As is his custom, del Toro builds an entire world, and populates it with memorable, believable characters. The Shape of Water is also a fairy tale, and all good fairy tales need a princess.

That’s where Eliza Esposito comes in. Eliza is a mute woman who lives above a failing movie theater. Eliza works as one of the custodial crew in a top-secret government science base. There, she pals around with her no-nonsense coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer, so, so good here). When Eliza isn’t working, she’s spending time with her next door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay illustrator who lost his job creating advertising art due to drinking problems.

Sally Hawkins plays Eliza with the perfect sense of wide-eyed wonderment. Yet del Toro stresses that despite her innocent nature, she’s not childlike; Eliza is very much an adult woman with lusts and desires, and one of the very first scenes we spend with her features her climbing into a bathtub to pleasure herself.

Eliza’s mostly mundane life flips upside when something is brought into the facility where she works. Housed in a tank of water, The Asset (Doug Jones), as it’s called, is an amphibious humanoid who is probably a distant cousin to The Creature From the Black Lagoon. For years, del Toro had expressed interest in filming his own Black Lagoon remake; it seems he’s gotten around the delays by making his own version of the creature, and then placing it within a love story.

With The Asset comes the odious Strickland (Michael Shannon, once again so good at being so bad). Strickland tortures The Asset, all with the hopes of extracting information out of the creature. A team of scientists are studying the creature, including Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Hoffstetler has a few surprising personal secrets, but he’s a man of science first and foremost. And while the superiors at the facility, including Strickland, want to eventually kill and dissect the creature, Hoffstetler stands in their way. 

Eliza begins spending time with The Asset when no one is looking. She brings the creature hardboiled eggs, and then later starts bringing records to play. Slowly, the two develop the unlikeliest of friendships – and perhaps something more. A burgeoning romance between a human woman and a fish man should be kind of silly, yet The Shape of Water never treats the love that blossoms between Eliza and the Asset as anything but sincere. That sincerity in turn makes it believable.

The characters that surround this primary romance are equally believable. The script, by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, works hard to give everyone their own individual storylines. The best of the bunch involves Giles, who hopelessly pines for a waiter at a local pie shop. Jenkins plays the character with quiet dignity, undercut with a hint of sadness; it’s the type of performance that makes you feel warm inside.

Even Strickland is given multiple dimensions. It would’ve been easy to make the character a one-note villain, but del Toro takes the time to give us a glimpse into his home life and at his struggles with his superiors. We’d never feel sorry for Strickland – he’s too vile for that. But through Shannon’s performance and del Toro’s care, we at least understand him.

The Shape of Water unfolds with a dreamy grace, full of moments that will have you uttering blissful sighs of content. Alexandre Desplat’s score is lush and romantic, perfectly underscoring the film’s tone, and the cinematography courtesy of Dan Laustsen recalls the look of films from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Del Toro creates one gorgeous moment after the next, including a show-stopping scene that turns into something out of a classic musical. It’s the type of thing only del Toro could create.

That’s true of The Shape of Water in general. We should be eternally grateful for the filmmaker, who exudes an unparalleled knowledge of how film works, and uses this knowledge to his full advantage. Here he has created one of the best movies of 2017, a stunning, romantic fable that will have you shedding tears of happiness. What a beautiful movie this is. What a remarkable filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is.

/Film Rating: 10 out of 10

Cool Posts From Around the Web:

About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a writer who frowns a lot. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, /Film, Mashable, The Film Stage, Birth.Movies.Death, The Playlist, Paste Magazine, Little White Lies and O-Scope Musings. 'The House on Creep Street' and 'Beware the Monstrous Manther!', two horror books for young readers Chris co-authored with J. Tonzelli, are available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413