A weird and sweet throwback from Guillermo del Toro
Leave it to Guillermo del Toro to make 2017’s weirdest mainstream movie. The maverick director responsible for the all-encompassing magic of films like Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth has been merely getting by with his last couple of big-screen offerings—the gorgeous but shallow Crimson Peak and the goofy but good-looking Pacific Rim.
The Shape of Water, for which he also co-wrote the screenplay (with Vanessa Taylor), reminds us that this guy is a genius. He’s a sick and twisted genius, but a genius nonetheless.
The story, set in the 1960s, is in some strange way del Toro’s version of a Disney flick. In addition to violence, nudity, interspecies sex and cuss words, the film has a sweetness to it.
Sally Hawkins—in an awesome performance that ranks as her second best of the past year (she was far more powerful in the grossly overlooked Maudie)—plays Elisa Esposito. Elisa is a cleaning woman alongside Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer, reminding us that she’s simply one of the best). Elisa is also mute. She lives in an old movie theater next to eccentric artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), and mostly keeps to herself.
Elisa and Zelda clean for a freaky research facility that gets a new arrival: an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones, wonderfully obscured in practical and CGI makeup) to be housed in a water tank. The Amphibian Man, who looks an awful lot like the Gill-man from Creature From the Black Lagoon, is accompanied by its keeper, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a menacing man brandishing a cattle prod. Not long after their arrival, Elisa hears the creature’s tortured screams from the lab in which it’s imprisoned.
A mishap leads to Richard losing a couple of fingers, and Elisa then gets some alone time with the Amphibian Man. She gives him some hard-boiled eggs and plays music for him in what eventually become lunch dates, which leads to the two gradually falling in love (yep!), and an escape from the lab.
The Amphibian Man itself is a wonder of filmmaking, perhaps del Toro’s greatest visual accomplishment. Equally beautiful and fierce, not a second goes by when it isn’t one of the best things put on a screen this past year.
The fairytale quality of the film is further fueled by an authentic 1960s feel, with much of it looking like something you would see on a dark Disneyland ride. The artist neighbor’s work has a Norman Rockwell quality, and his obsession with old-timey movies completes the film’s period spell.
Shannon, representing all that was evil in man during the sixties, lets it all hang out for a bravura performance. But it’s Jenkins with his soft and funny performance that has garnered award considerations, including a supporting actor Golden Globe nomination, one of seven total for the movie, including best film, director and screenplay, and best actress and supporting actress for Hawkins and Spencer.
It all amounts to a return-to-form triumph for del Toro, who allows his dark side to really come out and hold hands with the beautiful things. The Shape of Water is unlike anything that has come before it (well, there are hints of Starman and Splash, but neither of those offer the visual splendor of Shape). Its success will probably garner del Toro enough juice to get even weirder in the future. That’s something to be excited about.