“The Shape of Water”, the latest film from Guillermo del Toro, is a haunting mix of fairy tale and love story with a bit of social commentary. While it does not entirely succeed in mixing its many different story elements together, the movie still works as a superlative visual experience packed with enchanting mood and numerous details to notice, and, above all, it somehow makes us care about an unlikely relationship between its two main characters.
In the beginning, we are introduced to a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins). She lives alone in a shabby apartment located above a big old movie theater in Baltimore, Delaware in the early 1960s, but life is not that bad for her on the whole. She has a fairly good job, and she is also close to her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an aging gay painter who has been accustomed to loneliness as much as Elisa.
At her workplace, which turns out to be some high security government facility, she usually works with her colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a sassy African American woman who frequently talks about her domestic life while doing their cleaning work with Elisa. When they are going through their another usual workday, they are instructed to clean the floor of a big laboratory room in the facility, and then they happen to see the metal water tank containing a mysterious entity, which has just been transported to the facility under the supervision of Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).
The entity in question, which was captured by Strickland somewhere in the Amazon, turns out to be a humanoid amphibian who may remind you of “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954). For some unspecified reason, this creature can provide possible advantages in the ongoing Space Race between US and Russia, so Strickland and his direct boss have no qualms about vivisecting this exceptional creature, but Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) thinks otherwise as a scientist who genuinely appreciates the value of this creature. He protests against the heartless decision of Strickland’s direct boss, but there is nothing he can do about that, and then the circumstance becomes trickier for him for a reason I will not reveal here.
Meanwhile, Elisa becomes curious about the creature, and so she comes to approach tentatively to the creature. Their first direct encounter is not exactly cordial, but Elisa eventually gains the creature’s trust through her small gesture of kindness, and they quickly come to interact more with each other. Besides teaching the creature a bit of sign languages, she also introduces several pieces of music to the creature, and there is a lovely moment when she becomes a little playful in front of the creature while music is played in the background.
Of course, their sweet time does not last long as Elisa comes to learn about what will soon happen to the creature, and she decides to do the right thing for the creature. With some help from Giles, she devises a plan for getting the creature out of the facility, and that leads to a suspenseful sequence unfolded within the facility.
While steadily maintaining the level of tension, the movie slows down its plot a bit during its second half, and the screenplay by del Toro and his co-writer Vanessa Taylor takes some time for developing further the relationship between Elisa and the creature. As spending more time with the creature, Elisa finds herself somehow attracted to the creature, and she does not hesitate at all for getting what her heart comes to desire for. At one point, she willingly shows more of herself to the creature, and the creature, who is apparently male, does not resist her more intimate approach at all. Thankfully not delving too much into their, uh, carnal business, the movie later gives us an impressive romantic moment reminiscent of the climax scene of “Delicatessen” (1991), and Sally Hawkins, who had a wonderful year thanks to her superb performances in this film and “Maudie” (2016), is convincing in her onscreen interaction with Doug Jones, who has been known well for playing several memorable creatures in del Toro’s films.
Like many of del Toro’s previous films, the movie also has several dark, unpleasant moments, and most of them come from Strickland, a vile, hateful man who virtually embodies the hypocrisy and monstrosity of the American society during the 1960s. While I think Shannon plays villains a little too often these days, he brings considerable intensity to his character as usual, and his disturbing performance makes an effective contrast to the decent supporting turns by Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Octavia Spencer.
As I pointed it out before, these story elements and other ones are not exactly held well together at times, the movie is an absolute pleasure to watch nonetheless. While the production design by Paul D. Austerberry, Shane Vieau, and Jeff Melvin is impeccable with bountiful details to be appreciated, the cinematography by Dan Laustsen is fabulous with a number of wonderful visual moments shining with haunting beauty, and Alexandre Desplat’s lyrical score is effectively used along with several period songs including “You Will Never Know”.
“The Shape of Water”, which received the Golden Lion Award at the Venice International Film Festival in last year, has been regarded by many critics as his best work since “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), and it is expected to garner a bunch of Oscar nominations including the one for Best Picture. I have some reservation mainly because the movie did not strike me as hard as “Pan’s Labyrinth” on emotional levels, but it is still a very admirable work on the whole, and I am certainly glad to have another helping of del Toro’s undeniable artistry.