Visionary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has long been enchanted by monsters. From chilling yet tender films like The Devil’s Backbone to Pan’s Labyrinth, and Crimson Peak, he’s offered creatures terrifying, yet uniquely beautiful. In Hellboy he made his monsters unabashed heroes. With his latest, del Toro turns an aquatic “affront” into a swoon-inducing romantic lead. The Shape of Water is a positively enchanting fairy tale that celebrates misfits, and reveals true monsters.
Scripted by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, The Shape of Water is set in 1962 Baltimore. In the grips of Cold War paranoia, Americans are deeply afraid of outsiders infiltrating their cozy suburban lives. In such a culture, everyone who is the least bit different seems suspect. Enter Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a plucky cleaning woman who makes an unexpected love connection while mopping floors at a top-secret government facility.
Elisa loves the musicals that play in the theater that lies beneath her petite apartment. She revels in her friendship with next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a warm-hearted and gay artist who faces challenges both professional and personal in an era rife with homophobia. Elisa is happy in her work, where she cleans alongside Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her outspoken friend who often speaks out on her behalf. See, Elisa is mute. Though she is able to communicate with sign language (aided by subtitles), her inability to vocalize sets her apart as strange and even exotic to the swaggering security man Strickland (Michael Shannon), whose oversees the facility’s most important asset, the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones).
The advertising for The Shape of Water leans heavily into the rich romance between Elisa and this curious creature, as well as the thrilling escape plan to free him from his torturous prison. Yet the film’s breadth extends beyond this, looking into the lives of its other characters outside of their connection to the Amphibian Man. There are scenes exploring Giles’s flirtations with a handsome pie shop clerk, Zelda’s home life with her ingrate husband, and Strickland’s sex life with his chipper wife. Even the seemingly mild-mannered scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) gets a thread that delves into his conflicting priorities. Together, del Toro and Taylor weave more than a story of girl meets beast. They weave a tapestry of tales of Americans demonized for their differences.
Here, alongside his mesmerizing monster, del Toro offers people who are maligned and misunderstood. They are female, queer, disabled, Black. And–in a nod that is modern and painfully relevant–one is a scientist who values truth over politics. To them, the unnamed creature is no monster. Instead, the movie’s true monster is Strickland, the violent, wrathful, and ignorant man in power, who values his own position over ethics, education, and love.
Shannon is a perfect movie monster. His square jaw jutting forward, as much as a threat as the electric cattle prod he wields. He froths with rage, snarls and insults. And he plays a perfect foil to Jones’ Amphibian Man, a nuanced and moving performance that seems doomed to be overlooked. Here, the esteemed actor, who has made a career playing monsters, creates a physicality both fiercely feral yet gracefully inviting. With a gentle yet confident elegance, he makes it easy to see the allure of this compelling creature as Elisa falls into a swelling sea of love.
Hawkins is breathtaking in the role of unexpected ingénue. Whether she’s doing a secret two-step, baring her body to her aquatic paramour, or spinning into a musical fantasy number, she is alive and beautiful. Del Toro’s presents her as innocent yet sexual, brave yet afraid, mute yet expressive. Hawkins is the rare performance that transcends language. And it’s only bolstered by a supporting cast of stellar turns.
Jenkins, who bookends the film with a poetic voiceover, is charming and heartbreaking as Elisa’s dedicated but anxious ally. Spencer’s role does admittedly fall into the “sassy Black friend” cliché, but the Academy Award winner makes a mirthful meal of it, winning laughs with her understandably exasperated expressions and over-it one-liners. Michael Stuhlbarg, who is also stirring praise for his scene-stealing monologue in Call Me By Your Name, brings an earnestness and intensity that spikes the film with deeper stakes. Together, this ensemble makes every scene throb with emotion.
Beyond all this, The Shape of Water is absolutely, devastatingly beautiful. Painted in jewel tones and accented by shadows, its world is vibrant yet rimmed with threat. Emerald lawns and teal Cadillacs, aqua uniforms and the cerulean stripes Amphibian Man’s scales, all play against the garnet-colored sprays of blood. For don’t forget, this is del Toro. Neither sex nor violence shall be softened in his R-rated fairy tale. Every frame is enchanting, bold in color, and flush with emotion, then made exquisite by Alexandre Desplat’s Parisian-inspired score. These elements come together to create a film that feels plucked from a dream, the kind you want to revisit night after night, and carry around with you like a heady afterglow into the morning.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko a co-host for the Sirius XM show It’s Erik Nagel, and has taught a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com