When Crimson Peak was revealed as the secret screening at 2015’s Fantastic Fest, I said that it was director Guillermo Del Toro’s creative peak. A dark, gothic, richly atmospheric love story, it had all the earmarks that had given Del Toro his well-deserved cult following. Now, two years later, he’s managed to not only outdo himself, but evolve as both a filmmaker and a creative visionary.
The Shape of Water takes us into the world of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a woman who’s content with the repetitive routine of her day-to-day life, at least on the surface. But, little by little, thanks entirely to Hawkins’ brilliant performance, the cracks in her veneer start to show. Like most of us, the pangs of loneliness wear on her, with only her roommate, Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) there to provide any sort of social interaction. The fact that she’s mute only exacerbates her perpetual isolation.
She works the night shift at a 50s-esque laboratory, mopping floors and wiping down consoles while Zelda drones on endlessly about her personal life. It’s there that she first sees the amphibian man (Doug Jones), a creature who resembles the Gill-Man from The Creature From The Black Lagoon, both in appearance and backstory.
While the fate of the creature is debated — the villainous Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) wants to vivisect it, while the noble scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to study it — Elisa takes to having lunch outside his tank, feeding him soft-boiled eggs and teaching him sign language. As the two continue to grow attached to one-another, Elisa decides to intervene.
Though the story plays out with a kind of pleasant, expected predictability, it’s impossible not to be captivated not only by the performances, but by Del Toro’s heightened sense of visual storytelling. Balancing his love of classic Hollywood love stories and monster movies from the same era, Del Toro creates a timeless aesthetic that’s still all his own. Only one scene seems to tilt the scale ever-so-slightly, but not enough to detract from the experience.
A world soaked in blues and greens (and teal, which becomes a minor subplot partway through), The Shape Of Water is a majestic cinematic dreamscape, a love-letter to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and a forward-looking artistic statement that’s in itself iconic while it skillfully defies the conventions of any film genre.
The Shape of Water is now playing in select cities with expansion on December 15.