For over twenty-five years, Guillermo del Toro has diligently revitalized horror tropes: Cronos gave vampires their bite back, The Devil’s Backbone proved that ghosts can still be haunting, and Pan’s Labyrinth was a shockingly grim fairytale. With The Shape of Water, del Toro set out to reinvent the creature feature subgenre established by Universal classics like Frankenstein and The Creature from the Black Lagoon , and in doing so, del Toro has crafted one of the year’s finest films.
Although del Toro has primarily spent the last decade directing and producing big budget action flicks and kid-friendly animated movies like Pacific Rim, the Hellboy films, and The Book of Life, del Toro, with 2015’s Crimson Peak, demonstrated that he is still deadly serious about horror. With his eleventh film, set during the Cold War in a shadowy government research facility, del Toro dares audiences to be swept up in a romance between a mute janitor, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), and a captive gill-man (Doug Jones), a romance that, del Toro believes, is long overdue. Del Toro understands that every classic creature feature, from King Kong to Okja, operates under one guiding principle: the audience should sympathize with (and even root for) the monster, for mankind’s ignorance and arrogance are the true monstrosities.
The strength of The Shape of Water lies in its cast of outsiders: Elisa’s coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is a confident black woman in 1960s America, while Elisa’s neighbor and best friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a closeted gay man looking for love in all the wrong places. Together, they recognize the humanity in the amphibian creature who suffers incredible abuse at the hands of Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland, a company man who values obedience above all else.
Thankfully, Shannon, alongside his co-stars, remains grounded. He never devolves into a mustache-twirling villain. His motives are clear and as a steadfast agent of the status quo, I even sympathized with him at times. Given the current political climate, Strickland is a timely character, a misguided, fanatical man that hates what he doesn’t understand.
Beyond the Oscar-worthy performances, del Toro executes the most jaw-dropping magic act of his career: he has convinced audiences that love between a woman and an amphibian humanoid is not only believable and heartwarming, but enviable. To achieve such an astounding feat, del Toro recontextualizes romantic clichés (there’s even a song and dance number!). He wisely borrows the fanciful sensibilities of French cinema (think Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie) to capture Elisa’s blossoming desires. Equally impressive, Jones, in a head-to-toe bodysuit, delivers a nuanced and rich performance. Known for performing with his hands, Jones instead emotes fear and curiosity with merely the subtle tilt of his head, while Hawkins silently reaches out to the bridge the gap between them. However, every tender moment is punctuated by a burst of brutal violence. This bold balancing act solidifies The Shape of Water‘s place as this year’s most audacious romance.
This is all to say that The Shape of Water is an elegant and imaginative film that marks a return to form for del Toro.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
As a dedicated monster movie lover, The Shaper of Water checked every box: a sleek and innovative creature suit design, all-in performances, a multi-dimensional villain, and a climax that brought tears to my eyes. The Shape of Water stands alongside (if not taller than) del Toro’s best films.
Read mxdwn Movies’ interviews with Guillermo del Toro, Michael Shannon, and Octavia Spencer here.