Flawless. Masterful. Brilliant. These are just a few words that come to mind when watching Guillermo del Toro’s most recent effort, “The Shape of Water”. Del Toro claims to have created the characters specifically for the actors who play them, and it shows. From the moving score, to the rich set design and the beautiful cinematography, “The Shape of Water” is cinema at its finest.
The story is much like a mashup of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Taking place in 1962, our journey begins with the routine and mundane lifestyle of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a janitor who works at a top secret government research facility. A mute since early childhood, she finds herself living an extremely lonely life with her only real companions being her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins) and a co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Longing for love and affection on a deeper level, Elisa finds what she is looking for in a most unusual way when she starts to form a bond with an amphibious creature which is being experimented on in a lab at her workplace.
The only thing standing in the way of their budding relationship is show-stealing Michael Shannon (give him an Oscar already!) as Richard Strickland, a government agent sent there to keep the creature under control at all costs. This role suits Shannon’s talents perfectly and audiences will find themselves loving to hate this evil man. The cattle prod-wielding Strickland works hard to cultivate an image of perfection, with a sexy, subservient wife at home and top-of-the-line Cadillac to match. But we come to learn that he is just as lonely as the rest of the group of outcasts who surround Elisa.
Since the story centers around the romance between a mute and a creature who can only squawk, their love is portrayed through a brilliant use of music and body language. It’s incredible how strongly we are able to feel their love flowing from the screen without a single world being uttered. Every character feels extremely dimensional in this way, whether they are speaking or just embracing the silence, allowing us to feel invested in their journeys. Sound design, particularly ambient noise, becomes a fun and essential component to understanding the fantastical world that del Toro has created. The sound effects take us deeper into the character’s world as we too experience their heightened senses.
“The Shape of Water” is one of the most masterful films to come out in years and one that succeeds in every aspect of filmmaking. While the story will remind viewers constantly of “Beauty and the Beast”, the updated and dystopian way that it is portrayed in “Water” will still amaze and dazzle viewers. There’s no doubt that del Toro is a modern master who once again gives theatergoers hope for more creativity in an industry that has become increasingly dominated by remakes and superheroes. Watching the way Elisa overcomes all the terrible obstacles standing in her way makes her a different kind of hero—one whom viewers will find themselves rooting for until the very last frame.