Guillermo Del Toro seems to make his best films while he’s at his lowest and in the darkest places in his life. He bounced back with The Devil’s Backbone after Harvey Weinstein and Miramax nearly destroyed his initial vision for Mimic, the Oscar winning Pan’s Labyrinth was Del Toro’s response to questioning who we are, what we do, and what we leave behind, and The Shape of Water is the first film of Del Toro’s that addresses his impulses, desires, and existence as an adult rather than based on the fears he had as a child. The Shape of Water is awkward and depressing at times, but undeniably beautiful throughout.
In Baltimore, 1962, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) has become accustomed to life as a mute. She’s seen as peculiar because of her inability to speak but enjoys musicals and dance numbers with her closeted and artistically talented next door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and has her fill of conversation with her talkative co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa works the night shift as a janitor at a research facility and lives a fairly routine life. Her demeanor could be described as timid yet inquisitive.
An “asset” is brought to the research facility one day by the ruthlessly manipulative and torture-obsessed Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) that Elisa is drawn to immediately. The Asset, also known as the Amphibious Man (Doug Jones), is worshiped as a God in some areas of the world and Strickland along with his superior General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) have the intention of dissecting him and using the results towards space travel technology to gain an advantage over the Soviets during the Cold War. A scientist handpicked from Galveston named Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is actually a Soviet spy who wants to preserve the life of the Asset and sees that opportunity when he secretly catches a glimpse of the relationship developing between a fish man and a mute woman.
The central relationship of this extraordinary fantasy drama features no spoken dialogue; it’s reminiscent of what made the relationship between WALL-E and EVE so touching in WALL-E. The film is driven by feelings and emotions rather than what the characters say. Both Elisa and the Asset have ways of communicating, Elisa with signing and the Asset with this moaning kind of chittering noise that is sometimes like a purr and at other times like the bark of a seal. The initial idea for The Shape of Water materialized in 2011 and was fueled by Del Toro’s admiration for The Creature from the Black Lagoon along with this burning desire to see a relationship blossom between Gill-man and Julie Adams. You can see that homage along with the Asset being directly inspired by Abe Sapien and Del Toro’s time spent on Hellboy. There’s this melancholy beauty found between Elisa and the Asset finding each other though. Loneliness plays a big factor in both of their lives as they’re both outcasts in their own way. They find comfort in each other and appreciate everything they have to offer one another rather than what they lack or what some might consider a freakish appearance.
It’s intriguing how important sex is in The Shape of Water. Elisa pleases herself daily to the sound of an egg timer while she’s in the bathtub long before the Asset arrives. This act, along with Sally Hawkins nude scenes with the Asset, feels natural rather than gratuitous. Elisa and the Asset feel complete when they’re together and ache for one another when they’re apart. You never feel closer to someone than when your naked and exposed flesh is pressed up against theirs even if it’s just for a hug or a warm embrace. The Shape of Water never feels dirty or even erotic. The film has a way of allowing a warmth shared between two individuals to flourish and mature over a two hour period.
In addition to the touching display between two unlikely individuals, Michael Shannon is an impressive asshole the likes of which only Shannon can deliver. Shannon had a similar performance in the 2012 action thriller Premium Rush and was the best part of that film because of it. Shannon is capable of being so cold and terrifying and his, “I can make you squawk a little,” speech makes you squirm in the best kind of way. Octavia Spencer taps into her role in The Help as Zelda Fuller and typically shares the role of comedic relief with Richard Jenkins’ Giles character. Giles seems to desperately want to be accepted and liked by everyone. It’s surprising how his admiration for dance numbers and key lime pie factor into the overall atmosphere of the film. His line about Corn Flakes being invented to stop masturbation is way more hilarious than it should be.
Everyone has their favorite Guillermo Del Toro film, but on a personal level The Shape of Water speaks to me the most. The film feels like Del Toro at his very best as it juggles heart-wrenching tragedy, sharp-witted humor, and heartwarming brilliance. It is without a doubt my favorite film of 2017 and one of the few films that has ever made me cry; the first in a movie theater. On one hand, it’s sad to hear that Del Toro is taking a year-long sabbatical from directing after the release of this film. But if Del Toro had to step away temporarily, having The Shape of Water be that final curtain to remind us how exquisite our existence is despite our race, color, gender, or species then that’s just as beautiful, tragic, uplifting, and amusing as the film makes you feel over its 123-minute duration. The spectrum of emotion you experience during The Shape of Water is unlike anything else to be released this year. Del Toro has this personal understanding of flawed humans and eccentric creatures resulting in something magical and wondrous. 5/5 “My God is an Actual Fish-Man” Bibles.