For me to be a fan of a director, they don’t have to consistently put out great, or even good films. Probably the biggest thing I love most about watching a film is seeing a director’s vision come to life in the most creative way possible. Guillermo del Toro is one of those directors. While his films range in quality from excellent (Pan’s Labyrinth) to mediocre (Crimson Peak), somebody would be a fool to say that the man is uncreative. Even if the film may not be very good, you know that you’ll be in for a visual treat with marvelous cinematography and production design, beautifully grotesque creatures, and escapist tones that immerse you into another world. 

The Shape of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute custodian who works overnight shifts at a government facility during the Cold War. A very lonely woman with very few friends, she’s always longing for something more. That something more comes in the form of a large amphibious creature (Doug Jones), brought in by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) to perform research and find out more about the creature’s biology. Abused, kept in chains, and unable to speak, Fishman forms a bond with the benevolent Elisa. Believing they were brought together for a reason, Elisa works with her friends and co-workers to save Fishman from certain death, while also forming a romantic bond with him. 

So yeah, what we basically have here is a love story about a mute woman and a Fishman. Like I said, if there’s anything del Toro is, he’s definitely creative and has unique vision. Thankfully his unique vision is backed up by a solid screenplay by him and Vanessa Taylor. While it’s a dark fantasy film, it has a very quaint feeling, mostly due to the 1960’s period setting. It’s clearly a love letter to the monster and romance films of that era, many of them playing in the background on television sets and movie theater screens. The cinematography feels very classical, but also modern with the gorgeous color grading filling the pictures with hues of blue and green. Alexander Desplat’s accordion laden score further invokes this mood, perfectly complimenting that old Hollywood feel. The subject matter is pretty absurd, but I had a huge grin on my face the entire time, completely engrossed in Elisa’s journey. 

Sally Hawkins as Elisa is absolutely terrific, conveying so much humanity and depth with her silent performance. She has such a sweet and caring attitude, but can’t help feel a little bit lonely and forlorn. Seeing her eyes light up when she starts forming a connection with Fishman is a genuine treat, and they both a have excellent chemistry with each other without even speaking a word. There’s some sign language exchanges here and there, but a lot of their romance is silent, part of why they’re perfect for each other. Sure, he may just be an animal, but when Elisa is constantly treated like one due to her disability, it’s the closest connection she has. Something else that is silent and misunderstood. Doug Jones is known for playing otherworldly creatures under pounds of makeup and prosthetics, so it’s no surprise he’s excellent here as well, using his contortionist background to communicate a lot through his body language. I just wish we got more scenes with them together. 

It’s not just about the relationship between Elisa and Fishman, though. It’s about the emotional effect that he has on everybody. You can’t have a monster movie without a crazy bad guy wanting to capture/kill/study the monster at all costs, right? Well, look no further than Michael Shannon as the perfect casting choice. Michael Shannon just might be my favorite working actor currently, and I find him incredibly underrated. He’s consistently the best part of anything he’s in, and I feel like he doesn’t get enough mainstream recognition. Again, he’s the best actor in the film here, portraying a military Colonel with an extreme power complex, looking for any opportunity to exploit it. Every character, even the supporting ones played by Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, and Michael Stuhlbarg, all have their own little subplots to flesh out their characterization. There are some scenes with them that don’t have to do with the overall main plot, but they’re thematically connected in showing that every character is looking for some kind of happiness to fill a void in their life. 

While The Shape of Water does contain some of del Toro’s typical shortcomings, such as occasionally cheesy dialogue, it’s still the most bizarrely beautiful film to come out in 2017. I admit that one’s enjoyment of the film will stem from how seriously they can take this human/Fishman relationship. It’s definitely odd, but I was so lost in the visuals, performances, and atmosphere that I completely bought it. Only a visionary filmmaker like del Toro can make a concept so out there so incredibly moving and touching. 


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