Review: Five Stars for The Shape of Water

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water (Kerry Hayes)

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water (Kerry Hayes)

Guillermo del Toro is a fascinating case as a director. He specialized almost exclusively in genre movies and mainstream fare, yet the man behind Pacific Rim and Hellboy enjoys a respect and level of acclaim that exceeds what filmmakers who do his type of movies generally receive. With the exception of his masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, this has always seemed a bit curious. What is it about the this guy that makes him the exception? But The Shape of Water, like his 2006 fairy tale, confirms just why del Toro is held in such high esteem. This is the best film he has ever made.

Sally Hawkins, who earned an Oscar nomination for not being completely overwhelmed by Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, stars in the film as Elisa, a mute cleaning woman at a secret government facility in 1962 who learns that the government has captured a fish-like humanoid from the Amazon and is studying it to gain whatever competitive advantage it can over the Soviets during the space race. Elisa forms a bond with the creature and wishes to help it when she fears that it will be harmed by the military official (Michael Shannon) who uses violence in order to tame it. With the help of her fellow cleaning lady Zelda (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and a Russian double agent (Michael Stuhlbarg), Elisa devises a plan to break the creature out of the laboratory and return him to the wild.

What del Toro does in The Shape of Water is fascinating, because the movie takes the form of a fairy tale monster movie, and yet despite all of the fantasy trappings, it works just as well as a character study and an acting showcase. The strength of a del Toro film is primarily visual, but for the first time he elicits performances from his actors that are universally complex and layered. As the mute Elisa, Hawkins gives what will surely rank as one of the strongest performances of the year. She seems both completely ordinary and luminous at the same time, and much like Holly Hunter in The Piano, she is intensely expressive even without the use of her voice.

The other four main performers (Spencer, Jenkins, Shannon and Stuhlbarg) are equally good. Spencer has her third acclaimed film set in the ’60s (She played a cleaning woman in The Help, a NASA employee in Hidden Figures, and now she’s playing a NASA cleaning woman.), but despite the similarities among her roles, she makes each of them distinct. And Jenkins takes what could be a merely reactive role as the narrator and gives it unexpected weight.

And yet the pleasures of a del Toro movie are still there. The film looks fantastic, and the design of the creature is a marvel of detail. Del Toro challenges himself to make the creature as appealing and desirable as possible, and largely succeeds. And even if some of the set pieces stretch the limits of plausibility, particularly one involving a flooded bathroom, they are generally in service of creating movie magic. Del Toro asks that the audience succumb to the film’s charm and largely succeeds at doing so.

Much like his previous highbrow fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water is a masterfully crafted film that should be a major contender for numerous technical awards at this year’s Oscars. The laboratory where the creature is trapped is an inventive mix of the realistic and the fantastic, while the score by Alexandre Desplat is one of the composer’s best and likely the most memorable this year. 

Guillermo del Toro has always been a reliable and entertaining director, but only once before has he truly transcended the genre trappings to make a movie worthy of his reputation. The Shape of Water may very well be known as his crowning achievement.

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The Shape of Water
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Now in select theaters, additional cities Dec. 8

5 Stars

Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).

Jeremy Ross is a Staff Reporter for Living Out Loud - LA, covering entertainment.

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