Guillermo Del Toro’s newest film, The Shape of Water, is a truly astonishing visual marvel. It’s mostly set inside dank, dark rooms and when the camera travels outside, it’s night or it’s pouring. So the film’s beauty truly comes from within the hearts of its main characters.
Del Toro appears to be on a personal quest to prove that the “fantasy” genre isn’t a genre at all. It’s just a style, a venue anyone can use to tell any story. In this case, it’s the tale of love between two misfits. It’s the kind of love story that’s been told countless times, but Del Toro’s style breaks it free of conventions. Rather than go with an Oscar bait-y venue, Del Toro makes his two lovers a mute janitor named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and an amphibious creature (Doug Jones).
The supporting characters in this play add depth the story. Del Toro isn’t a director whose films rely solely on visuals, even though he is a fantastically visual director. The Shape of Water is no different. These characters all serve the story, with no added fat. Elisa’s friends – closeted artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) – each have certain ways to help her, and they never overlap until the climax of the film.
The performances from the heroes are astounding. Sally Hawkins is breathtaking as Elisa. She doesn’t say a word in the film, outside of a short dream sequence. Her performance makes it easy for us to buy the idea of a human falling in love with a grotesque creature. Somehow, Del Toro has figured out how to make this easier to believe than the “schlub falls in love with a model” cliche Hollywood comedies force down our throats.
Any good fairy tale also needs a great villain, and the one found here is Col. Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon. Is there a better actor working today who can play villains? The answer is no. The intensity Shannon brings to this role is unparalleled.
What makes Strickland a fascinating character is we can sympathize with him almost as much as we do with Elisa. He’s a man desperate to live to an insanely strict moral code, and a family to support. His vision of the world doesn’t actually exist, so when he learns that, his attempt to crush everything that ruins his world view comes off as pathetic and sad.
It’s hard not to see the films of 2017 without considering the world outside the cinema. The Shape of Water is set in the early 1960s, and even though it is a fantasy film by a technicality, Del Toro doesn’t shy away from the issues of the day. Discrimination, either racial or sexual, is a major part of the film and even central to the relationship between Elise and the creature. It is, after all, what pushes them together and continues to shape the world we live in.
The Shape of Water is such a gorgeous movie, and one that begs to be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate. Sally Hawkins’ performance is truly incredible, and in a perfect world, people will talk about Doug Jones’ work as the creature for years to come. Not too many films can be both a spiritual sequel to Creature of the Black Lagoon and Shall We Dance at the same time, with a little Hitchcockian Cold War mystery thrown in for good measure. It proves that you can have all that, and show the true power of love while you’re at it.