Guillermo del Toro is best when he focuses on characters. I’m not trying to take away from what the man can do visually (the man can handle SFX better than most, see Pacific Rim), but he shines as a storyteller when he focuses on his character driven films. I know watching Wesley Snipes suplex a shit ton of vampires or watching giant robots beat the holy hell out of sea creatures sounds like the best way to spend 10$ and a couple hours, but what’s the point of all that gorgeous CGI mayhem without any substance?? Knowing why Blade hates those blood suckers or who built the robots makes rooting for them that much better! Shape of Water, while loaded with stunning visual effects, is Del Toro’s most engaging and character driven story he has ever given us in a long time.
If your going to center a movie around character who can’t speak, you better have a damn good actor and Sally Hawkins is just that: Damn good. She plays Elisa, mute cleaning lady working at a government facility. She forms a connection with amphibian man/creature that was captured by the grossly driven government agent, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and brought to the facility for testing. Before long Sally learns of Strickland’s plan to kill and dissect the creature and with the help of friends (Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer) forms a plan to save the creature.
Hawkins gives us one of the best performances of the year and doesn’t have a line of dialog (minus a short musical number…). Hawkin’s loneliness seeps from her eyes and fills every scene she is in. Elisa leads a quiet life and is unable to truly to connect with people due to her inability to talk and the self/societal stigmas that comes with it. She has a pseudo-relationship with her gay artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and sister/martial relationship with co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), but both relationships lack intimacy (emotional and physical) that she longs for. She sees herself in the creature. He’s large and frightening and it’s understandable why you would be afraid of him (or it), but Elisa is able to see past that and how he reflects her. Her muteness is what keeps people at arms length. We don’t see a woman, we see a mute and for most people that’s impossible to overcome. Where we see a terrifying creature, Elisa sees a kindred soul and someone who knows how we can forget who we truly are due to self isolation.
Where this is Hawkin’s show, it wouldn’t be much of a show without a strong support cast. Richard Jenkins delivers like the damn all star he is. His story arc is heart breaking and compelling. Jenkin’s is a diverse actor who is more than capable of driving home the struggle this man goes through. Octavia Spencer’s Zelda plays the ‘voice of reason” and tries to steer Elisa in the “right” direction. These two are counter balanced by Strickland (Michael Shannon). Where Giles and Zelda (a gay man and black woman in the 1950s) represent the most oppressed, Strickland is the oppressor. A government agent whose sole purpose is to succeed. He doesn’t know what this creature is and doesn’t seem to interested to find out. He only cares about wining. Shannon could be the best actor on earth. The man encompasses himself in his roles no matter unsettling or disgusting they. And Strickland is disgusting. Which is saying a lot when you share the screen with a 7 ft tall fishman.
Speaking of 7ft tall fishman…
The creature is stunning. He’s frightening and at first hideous. As the relationship between him and Elisa solidifies, it’s almost as if a layer is peeled away and we start to view the creature with softer eyes. Much of this due to Doug Jone’s performance. Very few actors can convey these levels through layers of latex and make-up, but Jones is a force. A uniquely gifted actor that was put on earth for Guillermo del Toro. These two are the peanut butter and jelly of the special effects driven movies. I’m not going on an anti-CGI rant. There’s room for both practical and CGI in this world. del Toro knows how to use both together and give depth to computer generated images. Not relying on them wholly to drive the narrative. Filling the screen with flashy images is one thing, but to be able to give them depth and substance is something only a truly special film maker can deliver.
Love knows no bounds and del Toro is not afraid to push that. The relationship that forms between Elisa and the creature is jarring and endearing. It may push bounds for some, but also strengthen what you define as love. The Shape of Water is a love story. It’s a fairy tale. It’s horror film. It’s everything I love about movies and is my favorite movie of the year.