If you are a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work, many parts of this film will feel familiar. He has several trademarks, and they are all evident in this movie. Chronos, the Devil’s Backbone, Mimic, Hellboy 1 and 2, Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak, and even Pacific Rim all have similar touches here and there – but always a haunting beauty that is very present in The Shape of Water.
The story focuses on Elisa Esposito – a mute janitor working in a government lab in 1960’s cold-war era Baltimore. She spends her days cleaning the lab and chatting (well, signing) with her co-worker and friend Zelda, and her evenings hanging out with her neighbor, Giles, in the apartments they have over a movie theater.
One day, a government special agent brings a creature they captured in a South American river to the lab for study. This agent, Colonel Richard Strickland, is obsessed with getting whatever secrets possible from the creature before the Russians do. Now, I’m not sure why that’s key, or what secrets an amphibian man could possess, or why the Russians would be interested – but hey – that’s the story.
Strickland is cold and cruel, trying his best to swiftly ascend through the ranks of his organization by brutalizing the creature during their sessions. One of the scientists working on the project, Dr. Hoffstetler, advises trying to be more gentle and learning from the creature, but Strickland is more concerned with cutting it open.
While cleaning the lab, Elisa forms a bond with the creature – teaching it a few signs, and finding the gentleness of him soothing and attractive. When Strickland gets a deadline to kill the creature, Elisa masterminds an escape with the assistance of Giles, Zelda, and Dr. Hoffstetler. Once she has him in her apartment, their bond grows even stronger (spoiler alert – yes, they have sex), and she eventually plans to release him back into the water and his freedom.
The movie is again, like del Toro’s other works – hauntingly beautiful and weirdly elegant. It’s an odd niche that del Toro has carved out for himself, but the craftsmanship is excellent. The color in the movie is expertly used to enhance the story. The sets are lovely, from the lab to the apartments, everything is perfectly crafted. The music by Alexandre Desplat is also just weird enough to be beautiful and pair well with the visuals and story. Overall, it is another stunning adult fairy tale from del Toro that will stay with you long after you see it. The cast is carefully picked to perfectly bring each role to life.
- Sally Hawkins is not someone I was familiar with prior to seeing this movie (and now suddenly it seems she’s everywhere, or maybe that’s just the plethora of Paddington 2 marketing?). She is so tiny and delicate, but does an amazing job of conveying Elisa’s strength and compassion.
- Octavia Spencer plays Zelda, and yes, the role feels like one you have seen her in before – somewhere between the Help and Hidden Figures, but since del Toro wrote this role with her in mind, that makes perfect sense. She is brilliant as a no-nonsense woman who eventually falls into helping with Elisa’s romantic nonsense adventure.
- Richard Jenkins plays Giles in such a lovely way that you really feel his lonely sadness, but also his exuberance at helping Elisa when she sets her mind to freeing the amphibian man. His scenes with the ‘pie man’ that he is quietly flirting with are just heartbreaking.
- Michael Shannon is horrific as Strickland. I’ve seen him interviewed and I know he’s a nice guy, just a little strange, but man, no one plays terrible guys better than he does. You really cannot wait for Strickland to get his and yes – spoiler alert – he does, but it takes way too long!
- Micahel Stuhlbarg plays Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, a scientist who is doing his best to be true to his own nature, but also his various employers. He does such an amazing job that he really stole most of the scenes he was in for me.
- The clear star of this movie is Doug Jones as the amphibian man. Doug has been multiple creatures for del Toro over the years – the most memorable being the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth and Abe Sapien in the Hellboy Series. He’s a phenomenal actor, and it’s wonderful to see him finally getting some major recognition for this role. He manages to give the creature a beautiful heart and soul that is obvious despite the species barrier.
Overall, the movie is magical and you need to see it – I will warn you, because someone was kind enough to warn me, that yes – the amphibian man does eat one of Giles’s cats! But don’t worry, it’s handled pretty well, and wasn’t as upsetting as I was expecting. Major spoiler alert here – but I just read a theory I found really interesting – Elisa has three perfectly lined scars on either side of her neck. We are told in the course of the movie that she was found by a river, and the scars are the result of the injury that caused her to be a mute. The theory I just read speculated that in fact they were just undeveloped gills, and she was the offspring of a creature similar to the amphibian man. This would make sense with the ending, since he’s got some healing re-growing touch ability. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s still a lovely thought, and puts a beautiful end on the movie.
9 out of 10 – I’m taking off a point for the cat. See it, it’s adult fairy-tale movie-making at its finest.
Bonus – cast interviews!
Behind the scenes: