Director Guillermo Del Toro has always been an astonishing visual director, even when it comes to a few of his lesser films. Even then the man has had a love for everything horror and fantasy, but even then there has always been a subtle fairy tale quality to his work. The Shape of Water not only embraces these attributes, they have come together to bring a different type of film that is clearly one of his most personal movies.
In 1960s America, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman working at a government facility with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) when an amphibious creature (Doug Jones) is brought in for experiments overseen by Dr. Hoffstetler (David Stahlbarg). Elisa and the creature form a deep bond that is threatened by Agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) and his need to protect America.
Let me get this out of the way and say that it’s pretty obvious that this is just Del Toro’s version of the classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. Of course, it’s much more lyrical, even poetic than the earlier film. Even though the movie takes place in a bygone era of America, it feels like an entirely different world. The color schemes, with their hues of greens and blues, come off as a fairy tale. Even the musical score by Alexandre Desplat just reinforces the point, almost like something out of a French New Wave film.
If Sally Hawkins, and Octavia Spencer for that matter, don’t get Oscar nominations for their work, then clearly fantasy horror have no place at the Oscars. Hawkins has to give a performance entirely in pantomime, and has to rely on just her face and body movements to convey her emotions. Trust me, this is fucking hard to pull off and Hawkins makes it seem way too easy, she’s so good in this. Even Doug Jones underneath all that make-up gives such emotions, the chemistry between the two actors is better than most big budget movies that have tackled a similar romance.
Spencer manages to take an almost thankless role and gives depth to emotion to a woman who’s living at the height of the civil rights movement. Through the vile character of Strickland, Del Toro manages to touch on the issues of racism and sexism without getting preachy, but enhances the themes of isolation and rejection, even within our own civilization.
Del Toro has crafted a deeply personal work of art here, one that, yes, does pay homage to old school monster movies but that has its own qualities, it’s own take on the outcast monster story that we all grew up on in some form or another. It is just without question that this is one of the best films of the year, and needs to be seen.