Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg

The Shape of Water will be unlike any other movie you see this year. I have probably used that phrase a few times this year, but take my word for it. It goes in some unique directions that you may not see coming thanks to writer and director Guillermo del Toro. Richard Jenkins serves as the film’s narrator describing what happened to his neighbor, Elisa (Hawkins). He shares the story of a “princess without a voice”, and it’s a tale of love and loss set to a dreamlike score by Alexandre Desplat. Elisa can hear other people but can no longer speak due to her damaged vocal cords. She lives a very regimented life in an apartment that sits above an old movie theater. During the day, she works as a custodian in an underground government-led research facility. One of her only friends is her co-worker Zelda, played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer. Zelda’s not afraid to be the voice for both of them.

Elisa is always curious about the comings and goings of what’s being researched in the lab. The newest specimen brought in is referred to as “the asset.” He’s an aquatic creature that’s half-man and half-fish embodied by frequent Guillermo del Toro collaborator Doug Jones. Elisa takes a liking to him oftentimes sneaking into his holding area to slip him food and attempt a basic form of communication using sign language. The Asset becomes a prized commodity between the evil scientists at the lab who harm him and other workers looking to trade him off for large sums of money. Elisa’s unique bond with him continues to grow in a romantic and sexual way. She pains to see him abused and sets off to rescue him before he’s left in the wrong hands.

Knowing The Shape of Water is from Guillermo del Toro provides the film with an extra bit of clarity if you know his body of work. His recent films like Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak, and Pacific Rim are all experimental in that sense of a director paying homage to a style and genre that has come before. Whether or not they all work, you can’t help but notice a very specific visual eye with The Shape of Water taking inspiration from the old creature features. You can feel a direct connection to 1954’s Creature form the Black Lagoon and King Kong. This movie feels like his love letter to those films and is clearly filmed with that filmmaking style. The costumes and production design are all kept very tangible and realistic, which in turn, grounds a fantasy-style film. The Asset isn’t meant to be a CGI creature, but rather actor Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) playing him under layers of prosthetics. It’s pointedly meant to be a costumed actor like the old days of Boris Karloff as opposed to the contemporary style of motion-capture performances which may have been utilized under a different director. It’s easier to buy into the love story between Elisa and the Asset when you have two actors on set versus one acting against a green screen.

The heart and soul of the film rests in the exquisite performances from Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins. Hawkins earned her first Oscar nomination for her work in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, and she will certainly claim her second for her portrayal of Elisa. The two characters couldn’t be any further apart. I knew from the trailer that there was something special about her performance. She may play a mute character, but it’s captivating to watch how she gets Elisa to communicate and open up through the emotional and physical choices she as the actor makes. As her neighbor Giles, Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) gives one of the best performances of his career. Guillermo del Toro gives Jenkins some heartbreaking scenes as Giles tries to open up and be his true self in the world outside of his relationship with Elisa. When they are together, they share the feeling of being misunderstood outcasts in one way or another. If anyone is to accept Elisa’s newfound happiness at the hands of the Asset, it is Giles who feels the loneliness that comes from society’s lack of acceptance of what it means to be gay. Michael Shannon plays the token villain with a heightened diabolical nerve to him. It’s the quintessential Shannon type of performance, but it plays well into the style del Toro is going for with the researchers at the lab. It’s easy to hate his character from the second he shows up.

I always recommend going into a movie with as little knowledge as possible. That certainly was the case with The Shape of Water. I knew Guillermo del Toro’s body of work and came to the realization that anything is possible with his creative imagination. I actually don’t think this movie would work as well as it does under the eye of another, more commercial director. Del Toro brings a very humane sensibility to it. I didn’t expect this to go in the direction it does, which is quite alarming when you’re not prepared for it. I don’t think every choice works along the way and there are some pacing issues by the end. Then again, maybe his ideas weave together more connectively upon multiple viewings after your expectations are set in place. It’s strange, unpredictable, and del Toro takes gigantic risks every step of the way with the outward themes of sexuality he brings forth. Underneath it all, it’s about communication and understanding. How do we forgive and understand each other when we think and do things differently than someone else? It’s imperative to go in with an open mind knowing that this isn’t your standard love story or Oscar-bait kind of movie. If you go in with any sort of hesitation, your guard will be up and will be hard to break down.

Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Guillermo del Toro dares to be different and it pays off.


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