There’s a little bit of everything in the latest film from Guillermo del Toro. The Shape of Water is part fairy tale, part monster movie, part romance, and part horror thriller. The filmmaker even finds room to squeeze in some nasty bits of gore and a dazzling musical number. It may sound like all of that couldn’t work in a single film, but del Toro melds the many elements of his sublime fantasy into a loving ode to cinema. It’s a heartbreaking love story about loneliness and the transcendent power of language, and it’s simply magical.

The Shape of Water opens with a shot floating through the hallway of an apartment building underwater, the scene bathed in mossy green light. Inside is a woman levitating above a couch as an alarm clock, a record player, and picture frames hover around her in peaceful harmony. She slowly sinks onto the couch and the rest of the apartment settles back into place as the story begins.

The woman is Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor who works at a top-secret government facility in Cold War-era Baltimore. At night, Eliza and fellow janitor Zelda (Octavia Spencer) clean ominous laboratories and turn a blind eye to the secretive going-ons inside. During the day she watches old movies with her friend and neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). But everything changes when a mysterious tank arrives at the facility. It houses an amphibious creature Michael Shannon’s vicious and angry government agent Strickland dubs “the Asset.”

Del Toro regular Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) plays the fantastical fish-man. You could call him a merman, but Jones’ creature is more of fishy humanoid with blue-green scales, a spiky spine, gentle bulbous eyes, and webbed hands. Michael Stuhlbarg’s sympathetic scientist Dr. Hoffstetler is fascinated by the fish-man and wants to study him – he was discovered in the Amazons where the natives once praised his species as gods – but Strickland is more interested in torturing the creature with a cattle prod. The government thinks he could be a valuable asset in the space race against the Russians, but when Eliza learns Strickland plans to kill him and dissect his body, she begins to plot his escape.

In between the violent torture sessions, Eliza sneaks into the lab to visit the creature, and the two quickly form a tender bond. She feeds him hardboiled eggs from her sack lunch, teaches him sign language, and plays him records – she can’t speak, but she can hear. Eliza and the creature may not be of the same species, but their connection transcends verbal communication. “When he looks at me,” Eliza signs to Giles in one moving scene, “He doesn’t know how I am incomplete. He sees me, as I am.”

The Shape of Water
Courtesy of TIFF

At its core, The Shape of Water is a story about the loneliness of being other. It’s made up of a cast of outsiders: Eliza, a disabled woman and an orphan, the non-human creature, and Zelda, who’s ignored by her husband and a target of Strickland’s racism. And then there’s Jenkins’ nervous illustrator Giles, whom we learn in a delicately nuanced reveal is a closeted gay man with a crush on a young waiter. Each of these characters are silenced, both literally and metaphorically, for being who they are. They exist on the fringes of society for looking, sounding, or loving differently, and the beauty of this film lies in how these characters transcend barriers and prejudices to find strength, love, and connection.

As Eliza, Hawkins steals your heart the moment she arrives onscreen. It’s a wonderful performance that communicates far more through gesture and facial expression than mere words could ever say. Giles is one of the best written characters I’ve seen all year, and also one of the best acted; Jenkins plays the anxious neighbor with an astounding sweetness and subtlety. Spencer is a delight as always, though her Zelda is the same sassy comedic role we’ve seen her play before. Stuhlbarg does some very fine work as the passionate scientist, and Shannon continually steals the movie; no matter how many times you’ve seen him play a villain, he somehow manages to surprise you.

If there’s one thing that never disappoints about a del Toro fantasy, it’s his visual style. The Shape of Water is intricately detailed and cloaked in various shades of green, from the mossy tones of the mesmerizing underwater sequences – one inside of Eliza’s bathroom near the end is just jaw-dropping – to the sickly emerald candies Strickland pops into his mouth like anxiety meds. Dan Lausten’s glistening cinematography and Paul Austerberry’s detailed production design turn the film’s world into a place you never want to leave.

The Shape is Water is going to a lot of people’s favorite movie of 2017 (it was my favorite out of the Toronto Film Festival), and maybe even of all-time. Its message about love and humanity may not be subtle, and it may not win over those resistant to bittersweet, gushy sentimentalism. But there’s no denying that del Toro made a masterpiece that will remind you what you love about the movies.


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