In a cinematic marketplace glutted with endless sequels, reboots, and reinterpretations, Guillermo del Toro’s filmography stands apart. Even when trading in familiar tropes of gothic horror (“Crimson Peak,” “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”) or blockbuster action (“Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” “Pacific Rim”), his movies reflect a distinctive appreciation for the places where the mythic and the macabre overlap. And when this sensibility is allowed to fully flower, as in 2006’s unforgettable “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the results are nothing short of stunning.
“The Shape of Water” captures that same magic. Like its spiritual predecessor, “Shape” is a fairy tale for adults—a movie unafraid to engage both the darkness of the chthonic and the monstrosity of the real world. And like “Labyrinth,” it’s heartfelt, memorable, and satisfying on the deepest of levels.
Set during the height of the Cold War, “Shape” centers on mute janitor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), who works the graveyard shift at a secret government lab outside Baltimore. When the sadistic Major Strickland (Michael Shannon) returns from an expedition to the Amazon with a “new asset” (Doug Jones) in tow, Elisa promptly befriends the ichthyic humanoid. When experiments on the live asset prove inconclusive and experts recommend vivisection, Elisa springs into action with a daring rescue plan.
On the surface, this narrative isn’t especially groundbreaking; much of the film resembles a mashup of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Free Willy.” The magic of “Shape,” though, is in the journey. Hawkins—bolstered by a strong supporting cast including Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer—turns in a bravura lead performance, capturing wordless intensity through a combination of facial expressiveness, rapid-fire sign language, and raw physical energy. Jones, as the similarly voiceless asset, matches her beat for beat as his character evolves from a helpless pawn of circumstance into a terrifying force of nature. (Mercifully, del Toro resists the temptation to rely on CGI motion-capture; this creature is a man in an actual costume.)
What really makes “The Shape of Water” so unforgettable, though, is the ever-present sense that this is a film about something. That’s not to say it’s trite or didactic: indeed, there’s a particularly vapid line of reviews of this film that describe it as simply a parable of tolerance in a fractured America. But this kind of assessment says far more about the neuroses of the critical class than about the movie itself: “Shape” is actually a story about the loss of stories, about the ways in which the beautiful and transcendent elements in life are subsumed within a world of shallow consumerism.
Colors mean everything in “Shape.” The murky shade of green that’s omnipresent within the film—the color of Elisa’s dress, Strickland’s Cadillac, the neon ads for television sets, the filling of a tasteless pie—represents the mundane, the enervating, and the utterly immanent. These are the day-to-day realities that lull us into blindness, keeping us from apprehending the wonder in our midst. By contrast, the color red—the color of Elisa’s apparel as the film proceeds, the color of the old movie theater beneath her apartment, the color of the pie shared by happy families in her neighbor’s paintings—evokes the Real, the ultimate, that which rouses souls from stupor and draws them into stories beyond themselves. That contrast between the comfortable and the magical is the beating heart of “Shape.” (A note: while this mode of overlapping the natural and the supernatural is undoubtedly sunnier than anything in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” it’s worth pointing out that this is most definitely not a film for children. Del Toro isn’t afraid to depict the violence and sexuality inherent in the real world.)
Longtime fans of del Toro’s movies will detect a great deal of shared DNA between this work and the rest of his canon. Some parallels are obvious (yes, the asset is del Toro’s second fish-man character with a taste for eggs), while others are subtler. Just to name one: del Toro’s films have always communicated, whether implicitly or explicitly, that the mysterious and wonderful in life is always close at hand and that we merely lack the predisposition to recognize it. Those who enter del Toro’s worlds and encounter the surreal are, almost without exception, “damaged” in some way—misbegotten (“Blade II”), destined for damnation (“Hellboy”), young and largely helpless (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), haunted by the past (“Pacific Rim,” “Crimson Peak,”), and so forth. Yet over and over again, these “deficiencies”—these weaknesses in the eyes of the world—prove to be the very traits that allow them to truly encounter that which is mythic and weighty. Their weaknesses force them to become part of stories that are not their own—stories that transcend them and in which they may play vital roles. By contrast, power and status—that is, the abilities to shape one’s own story—are, for del Toro, the epistemological anesthetics that numb the heart and mind to wonder.
“The Shape of Water” won’t be to all viewers’ tastes. It’s weird, exotic, and a bit bizarre, and not at all the sort of movie that one watches with an eye on their cell phone. “Shape” demands both a suspension of disbelief and a willingness to commit to del Toro’s singular vision. But those who’re willing to go along, to dive into this idiosyncratic and beautiful film, won’t be disappointed.
Unlike anything else out there; the best del Toro flick since “Pan’s Labyrinth.”