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Every time that Guillermo del Toro releases a film, it feels like an event. del Toro always takes the audience on a unique journey that gives us his perspective on the world around him in only the way that he could, and The Shape of Water is no different. Much like Pan’s Labyrinth before it, The Shape of Water is a beautiful dark fairy tale that whisks the viewer into a period setting, where they’re introduced to incredible creatures, fascinating characters, and a story that reflects as much on our modern world as it does our past. In fact, the way that del Toro has put this film together, there’s almost a timeless quality to it that is hypnotizing and familiar, while also feeling like a completely separate world. It’s a fine balancing act, but it should come as no surprise that del Toro handles it brilliantly, crafting a film that may be his magnum opus.
Set in the perfect period of life that is 1962, a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) goes about her business day in and day out at a government facility in Baltimore. But one day, her repetitive life is shaken when the lab brings in a mysterious creature (Doug Jones) from South America. Against orders from Strickland (Michael Shannon), the shady government agent who brought the creature in, Elisa begins to bond with the creature, and soon realizes that she’s the only who can save him from what’s to come. Against all odds, Elisa devises a plan to save the creature, and in the process, possibly save herself from her humdrum life as she knows it.
The most fascinating thing that del Toro does with The Shape of Water, as mentioned above, is the timeless feel of the story. In so many ways, the perfect Americana feel of 1962, and the murkiness underneath is as relevant to how we see that time now, to what we’re currently living in. Baltimore features the perfect suburbs, the happy families, and a perfect tranquil life, but it’s also just as easily shaken by dark secrets, racism, and homophobia, while also looking over their shoulders at the Red Menace known as Russia. It’s easy to paint something like this in broad strokes, but del Toro doesn’t, and he truly delves into the psyche of the people in this world he’s created, and how these things are affecting each person.
It helps that the film is stacked with a phenomenal cast, with many giving what are easily their best performances to date. Sally Hawkins in particular shines like never before as Elisa, and the amount of emotion she’s able to convey with no words is simply incredible. She fully grabs the audience, making you feel everything she does, and it’s a one of a kind performance that you can’t help but fall in love with. With no words, Elisa has quickly become one of the most interesting and beautiful characters of the year, and maybe of del Toro’s entire filmography, and that’s all down to Hawkins’ stellar performance. Much the same can be said about Doug Jones who cannot go overlooked as the Creature. Jones is del Toro’s muse, playing creatures of all kinds for the director, and here he brings to life what may be his best performance. His relationship with Hawkins is truly riveting, and the fact that the two can convey so much affection for each other with no dialogue is just incredible. Jones is a unique talent, and much like Hawkins, it’s absolutely fascinating how much he can do with just a look and the way he moves, not a single line of dialogue needed.
But every film hero is only as good as their villain, who here is played by a rather unhinged, yet oddly charming Michael Shannon. The slightly deranged Strickland is perfectly in the wheelhouse that Shannon has created for himself, and del Toro gives him incredible dialogue to really bring out what is a truly great performance. You truly believe that this man, who sees himself as a tool of God, will do anything in his power to get what he wants, and it doesn’t matter what he has to take out in the process. But as far as those big three go, there are some fantastic supporting performances as well from Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlberg – – the latter of which has had an incredible year for himself between Fargo season three, this, and the Oscar hopeful Call Me By Your Name – – that really fill out the film. Each character is uniquely situated to play a part in the darkness underneath the film, and you can’t help but love each one of the characters. It’s always been a del Toro magic trick to make characters, either supporting or lead, who are not only interesting, but layered as well, and The Shape of Water continues that trend beautifully.
Of course, one thing that the audience has come to expect from any del Toro film is something that’s not only layered, but it has to be visually arresting as well. The Shape of Water is no exception, and del Toro borrows from some of his favorite monster films and creature features, creating a uniquely interesting feel to this world. While it may not feel as fantastical as Pan’s Labyrinth or Hellboy, it doesn’t need to. The world still feels unique to itself, and while at times it feels familiar, the moments that it becomes more striking and beautiful, the more it stands out in a big way. Grounding the film the way they did actually helps a lot, because it really does make the most beautiful moments pop off the screen when they happen, but one scene in particular of the creature standing in the middle of a movie theater really stands out among the rest because it’s a uniquely defining character moment. It’s done in such a beautiful way, and del Toro captures it perfectly in only the way he can.
It’s just great that del Toro uses this film, which in a lot of ways feels like his homage to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, as a sort of mouthpiece for what’s wrong with the world right now. The blatant hate or disregard for those that are different, whether they’re a different nationality, skin color, sexual orientation, or just plain different like Elisa, and how that will truly be our downfall. The Creature knowns no better about this world, and he sees Elisa as beautiful, not because of how she looks, but because of who she is. del Toro uses his platform to preach the simplest, but most effective of rules of life: treat others with respect. It’s quite simple, and yet human nature has continually pit us against each other for years, which really adds to the timelessness of the film, while also being a bit of a dour warning. The world isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t need to be, but we need to better than what we do to each other, and del Toro shows this in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s beating you over the head, but in a way that says wake up, we can’t do this to each other anymore. This film also really pushes the beauty of love, and the lengths it will push those who find it. But more than that, it also shows that love is blind, and it’s more important who you are than what you look like.
The Shape of Water is a truly beautiful film that is beautiful, heartbreaking, and wonderful all at once. A true dark fairy tale from the master Guillermo del Toro is not only one the year’s most unique offerings, but it’s one of the year’s best as well. Stacked with a fantastic cast, with Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones really standing out ahead of the pack, this is easily one of the most relatable and beautiful films of del Toro’s filmography to this point. In many ways, this may be he his best film, but even if you don’t find it that, you’re sure to find that this is easily a film you can fall in love with. This is a film that must be seen, and must be heard, because del Toro has truly poured his heart and soul into it.