Guillermo Del Toro used to save his arty genre movies for his subtitled productions and make pure genre nonsense in Hollywood. That split is over. The Mexican maestro’s latest American production is one of his most complex and moving outings to date. Of course, it does have a monster in it—that’s just how Del Toro rolls. It’s also a magnificent monster, in many ways, his take on the classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s also spliced with the fairy tale romanticism of Amelie, cold war paranoia, empathetic identity politics, and some of the most beautiful filmmaking to hit screens this year. It’s a remarkable work from a remarkable artist, and hopefully it does well enough for Del Toro to continue down this path. Don’t get me wrong, I love Blade II and Pacific Rim, it’s just better to see Del Toro flex all of his artistic muscles.
The story follows a mute janitor played by Sally Hawkins. She’s ignored by the world and lives a life of routine. She’s also living in a mythical version of Cold War America and cleans a super-secret government facility. She finds moments of magic in her life though, whether it be in the cinema she lives above or her friendships with a closeted artist roommate and an equally repressed co-worker played by Octavia Spencer. Her life goes in a tizzy with the arrival of two monsters. One is a merman creature (Del Toro’s monster regular Doug Jones) who arrives at the facility for study. The other is a government agent played by Michael Shannon who abuses his privilege and power whenever possible.
She falls in love with the merman in magical and life affirming ways. She even decides to bust him out of captivity along with Jenkins, Spencer, and a secret Russian spy with a heart of gold played by Michael Stuhlbarg. The creature brings magic to all of their lives and teaches them that they shouldn’t have to keep their true selves hidden. Unfortunately, there’s that other monster and since he’s played by Michael Shannon, it’s safe to assume that he won’t let happiness be the status quo.
Heavy and heady stuff to be sure. Del Toro is a lifelong monster geek who revels in the ways that monsters can serve as metaphors for outsiders. The Shape of Water plays like his purest example of that theme. All the characters other than the monster are burdened by something that defines them as outsiders and repressed by society. By helping the monster escape captivity, they all find themselves and their power. It’s a pretty obvious metaphor, but one that couldn’t be more timely and is told beautifully within a fairy tale horror story so romantic and thrilling that the vegetables go down smoothly.
It almost goes without saying that the film is beautifully made. That’s the Guillermo Del Toro way. Every set, costume, and shot is meticulously constructed for maximum import and impact. There are layers to everything, but the visceral entertainment rings true. The merman monster is a stunning technical achievement and heartbreaking outsider. The cold war setting ramps up the paranoia and intrigue at all times. Del Toro luxuriates in all the tools available to him in all the genres he mashes together. He even slips in a musical number and it works because the love story between the monster and the mute feels so earned and pure.
Performances are as universally impressive as the script and effects. Sally Hawkins is extraordinarily moving and empathetic despite not having a single line of dialogue at her disposal. Jenkins is equally moving and has the challenge of vocalizing all the movies themes in a way that sounds naturalistic. He pulls it off. Spencer and Stuhlbarg turn characters who could have been one note clichés into quirky and lovable support.
Doug Jones finds warmth and personality beneath his mound of latex. And of course, Shannon is a force of nature as the villain. It takes a lot of skill to be a more intimidating and unpleasant screen presence in a film that features a scaly sea monster, but he does it with such ease and command that you can’t take your eyes off him. Within a film that’s so stylish, daring, creepy, and touching, somehow it’s also an effective character study with an impressive ensemble.
The Shape of Water is a beautiful fable of the oppressed, an effective monster yarn, and one of the most beautifully unconventional love stories of the year all rolled into one. It almost feels like Del Toro’s ode to everything that he loves about life and cinema. The joy the filmmaker put into the work is infectious. Aside from the most cynical viewers, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being seduced and touched by this magnificent motion picture. It might be Guillermo Del Toro’s finest achievement and the uncertainty speaks only to the remarkable work that he’s done before. Easily one of the best films of the year. Don’t miss it if you have a heart and adore movie monsters (note: if you don’t share those traits, we’ll likely never be friends).