Leave it to Guillermo del Toro to make 2017’s weirdest “mainstream” movie.
The maverick director has been merely so-so with his last couple of big-screen offerings: the gorgeous but shallow Crimson Peak, and the goofy but good-looking Pacific Rim. The all-encompassing magic of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth seemed to be eluding him, and it was looking like he’d perhaps peaked a few films ago.
But The Shape of Water, for which he also co-wrote the screenplay, reminds us that this guy is a genius—a sick and twisted genius, but a genius nonetheless.
This story set in the 1960s is—in a strange, backward way—as close to a Disney movie as del Toro has gotten. It has a lot of violence, interspecies sex, nudity and cussing in it … yet it has a Disney kind of vibe to it. That del Toro—he’s a nut.
Sally Hawkins, in an awesome performance that’s her second-best of 2017 (she was far more powerful in the grossly overlooked Maudie), plays Elisa Esposito. She is a cleaning woman alongside Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer, reminding us how she’s simply one of the best)—and she’s mute. She lives in an old movie theater next to an eccentric artist, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and mostly keeps to herself.
Elisa and Zelda clean a freaky research facility that gets a new arrival: Amphibian Man (Doug Jones, wonderfully obscured in both practical and CGI makeup), who is housed in a water tank. Amphibian Man, who looks an awful lot like the Creature From the Black Lagoon, is accompanied by its keeper, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a menacing man brandishing a cattle prod. Soon after their arrival, Elisa hears the creature’s tortured screams from the lab where it’s imprisoned.
A mishap leads to Richard losing a couple of fingers, and Elisa gets some alone time with the Amphibian Man. She gives him hard-boiled eggs and plays music for him during what eventually become lunch dates. The two gradually fall in love, and when word comes down that the creature is to be destroyed and dissected for military purposes, an escape is in order.
This leads to the Amphibian Man being housed in Elisa’s apartment, where the interspecies love blossoms in the bathtub. (I know some people draw the line at human characters getting down with alien/god-like/Creature From the Black Lagoon characters, so consider yourself warned. It all happens off screen but, still, there you go.)
The Amphibian Man itself is a wonder of filmmaking, perhaps del Toro’s greatest visual accomplishment. Equally beautiful and fierce, not a second goes by when it isn’t one of the best things put on a screen in 2017.
The Disney-like fairytale quality of the film is further fueled by an authentic 1960s look, with much of it feeling like something you would see on a dark Disneyland ride. Giles’ art has a Norman Rockwell quality, and his obsession with old-timey movies completes the movie’s period spell.
Shannon, representing all that was evil with man in the 1960s, turns in yet another bravura performance, but it’s Jenkins, with his soft and funny performance as Giles, who has garnered awards nominations. He, along with Hawkins and Spencer, received a Golden Globe nod to go along with his and Hawkins’ Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations.
The Shape of Water is a return-to-form triumph for del Toro, who allows his dark side to come out and hold hands with the beautiful things. The film is unlike anything that has come before it. (There are hints of Starman and Splash, but neither of those offer the visual splendor of Shape.) Its success will probably garner del Toro enough juice to get even weirder in the future. That’s something to be excited about.
The Shape of Water is playing at theaters across the valley.