It feels like ages ago that Director Guillermo Del Toro stole our hearts and made us cover our eyes with his instant classic Pan’s Labyrinth. In fact, that was only 10-years ago and Del Toro had been working on creature features (Mimic, Hellboy) and writing extensively dating back nearly two decades. But when Labyrinth was released in 2006 in felt like a moment – a true visionary was being born and we were going to be reaping the cinematic pleasures for years to come. But while Del Toro has steadily worked and stayed in the public eye he has only made 3-feature films since. He returned to the red devil in the hellaciously-fun Hellboy II: The Golden Army, created a very fun if a tad one-note creature/robot smash em up in Pacific Rim before returning to his more interior-focused gothic roots with the eerie and bizarre Crimson Peak.
Now the enigmatic man behind the camera has brought us The Shape of Water – a film Del Toro says he’s been dreaming of making ever since he saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon and this image was seared into his memory.
It’s a simple framework and lucky for us we have a master craftsman at the helm. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito – a mute janitor at a research facility in the 1960’s. She has a simple life by most standards – waking up and taking care to see her neighbor Giles (an eccentric painter and shut-in played masterfully by Richard Jenkins) has what he needs for the evening before bussing into the facility for her night shift alongside her far chattier colleague Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer – please be in all the movies.) They spend their evenings, mop in hand and bucket below keeping bathrooms, walkways and very unorthodox facility rooms shining so that the research staff can continue whatever it is they are doing.
One day this routine is interrupted by the arrival of something…different. A new specimen arrives accompanied by a government convoy led by the dastardly and very tightly wound Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon.) The new creature is a large fish man that apparently gave Mr. Strickland quite the handful when he captured him. Strickland abuses him to no end, leaving him outside his tank without water, electrocuting him and often just beating him incessantly for removing two of Strickland’s prized 10-fingers.
Over the course of several nights Elisa begins to visit the creature during her rounds, using her relationship with a kind scientist named Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) for just enough cover to begin to interact. She quickly learns this fishy-fellow is smart and very much enjoys the food she brings to his less than appetizing tank. Elisa begins to fall for him as she realizes there is not much separating them after all – they both speak ALS, learn quickly and are whip smart on their feet…or fins.
After stumbling upon Strickland’s plan to kill her newfound beau so the U.S. government brass can cut him open she concocts a plan with the help of Giles, Dr. Hoffstetler and Zelda. From here, Del Toro slows the pace to explore this aquatic romance as Elisa cares for her lover while he lives in the bathtub.
This is precisely where The Shape of Water will either win or lose a general audience. Del Toro’s film is lavish and beautiful and as much as it is an ode to the films of his past it’s an ode to love in all forms. The film’s ethos seems to be that love is shapeless and impossible to contain, it finds nooks and alleys to invade while nary batting an eye at the whims of obligation. And do Del Toro (and to this writer) this should be celebrated and embraced – because love doesn’t seek to harm but rather enlighten and enrich all of us.
Not all of it works. Del Toro has a pension for nausea inducing violence and finds some clever ways to pile on in the film’s third act. But at it’s core his simple narrative mostly worked for me and his craftsmanship moved me. It may not be his best work but it’s his most endearing and beautiful and I for one will celebrate that.