Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
If “The Creature From The Black Lagoon” had been conceived as a 1960’s-esq love story, it might’ve looked something like “The Shape Of Water.” Guillermo Del Toro’s latest visionary ode to the era of classic monster movies. Not since “Pan's Labyrinth” has the director been on his aesthetic game: complete with a color palette that is stunningly gorgeous, and a beauty and creature romance that is the gooey heart of this strange, engrossing, and magnificent tale.
Part of the magic in a Del Toro movie is the way he conveys a story. And his recent films “Crimson Tide” and “Pacific Rim” just didn’t connect with me on a deeper level. And so “The Shape Of Water” is a welcome return for the maestro. Who instantly reminds us that he most certainly hasn’t lost his touch. This time, he’s transporting us to the depths of 1960s Baltimore, where the Cold War rages on, and it’s also the setup of his latest fantasy. Sally Hawkins makes strides as Elisa, a woman with no words to speak of on account of a birth defect that left her a mute. She communicates through sign language and her eyes. The latter of which have so much expression, it’s like she is saying whole speeches without uttering a syllable.
Elisa doesn’t partake in much, her rituals are fairly consistent and she clocks in as a cleaning lady at a local government facility daily. Her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer - terrific as usual) often lends her a helping hand, looking out for her in the midst of unsuspecting circumstances. But that doesn’t stop Elisa from sharing a bond with an aquatic like amphibian with gills that glisten from all sides. He towers over six foot, and was just brought to the lab for “testing.” Meaning: the government just wants to poke and prod something they don’t understand. Cue the slimy, greeseball honcho named Strickland (Michael Shannon doing what he does best), the man whose name just sounds bad, believes we are “created in the lord's image” and sees the creature as a threat. Mainly because he doesn’t look like you or me. Shannon brings his A-game to the role of the villainous Strickland, a true marvel and balanced character to help round this thing out.
On the other hand, we’ve got Dr. Robert Hoffstetter (Michael Stuhlbarg, which between “The Post” and “Call Me By Your Name” is making quite the name for himself) who is conflicted with how the creature is being treated and he follows the path of the cliche scientist who becomes emotionally attached to their subjects. Like Elisa, he too is fascinated by what this creature is capable of. And most of that needs to be attributed to Doug Jones playing the credited “Amphibian Man.” Jones, a frequent collaborator with Toro, is able to flex freely, and allot movements in a beautiful synchronized fashion. He doesn’t just walk across a room. He floats. And with Hawkins giving these two their spark, Jones pops off the screen. It’s rather encompassing.
As the plot thickens, so does time. And Elisa, along with her next door neighbor, and loyal best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins doing fine work as always) are determined to break our scaly friend out of the lab facility and into freedom. All the while, Strickland is hungry and yearning for his next big promotional pay day. It’s a race against the clock, and Toro directs these scenes so exuberantly it doesn’t feel like the runtime is over two hours.
But what transpires is so much more than a intense thriller about government conspiracies, and visual effects. “The Shape of Water” creates a lasting impression of how two people should fall in love and the connection they share with their differences. Yes it’s weird. But it’s also rich and detailed. Sure, it will be eerily offbeat for some, that the narrative involves Elisa developing feelings for this, truly, breathtaking creature. But when you see just how much he means to her, it’s not that hard to believe.
Del Toro has created something so dutifully reminiscent of the best romances in this millennium. The film doesn’t just mold the story around itself to fulfill audience demand, Del Toro forces us to look at the bigger picture and his idyllic metaphors. Hopefully it’s not another 10 years before the filmmaker makes these kind of waves again. A-