Who can make a movie that has the kinkiest sex scene, the creepiest sex scene, and one darkly funny cat death? I’d say Guillermo Del Toro since The Shape of Water has all of those scenes.
Mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works as a janitor at a military facility where an amphibian creature called The Asset (Del Toro veteran Doug Jones) is imprisoned. The lonely Elisa sees something special in The Asset as she shares eggs and music with him. Elisa’s closeted neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and neurotic coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are concerned for her, but agree to help her free The Asset after sadistic government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) vows to kill it.
The Shape of Water is the closest Del Toro will get to making either a romantic comedy or Beauty and the Beast. This is an R-rated Disney movie; Elisa and The Asset are the Princess and Prince Charming while Zelda and Giles are Elisa’s comic relief sidekicks. In addition to the obvious homages to Disney films and Creature from the Black Lagoon, Del Toro explores ostracism and loneliness.
The film takes place during the Cold War and Civil Rights Movement; Elisa, Zelda, and Giles are all outcasts. Elisa is often taken advantage of for being mute, Zelda’s discriminated against for her race, and Giles often finds harsh rejection instead of love. Hawkins, Spencer, and Jenkins are all wonderful in their performances and portray characters in pain. Hawkins in particular is a strong Best Actress candidate as the expressive Elisa.
As Elisa, Hawkins is committed in portraying a lonely, caring, and devilishly clever hero. We feel bad for Elisa when she makes a tough decision with The Asset, but we also root for her when she taunts Strickland through her sign language.
Shannon owns every scene as Strickland. Del Toro has a knack for writing memorable villains and Strickland is my new favorite of his. Unlike the film’s heroes, Strickland has it all. He’s a respected authority figure, has a beautiful wife, an active sex life, loving kids, a big house, and a teal Cadillac. Yet Strickland’s strive for perfection, acceptance, and decaying hand make him increasingly unhinged.
MILD SPOILERS ABOUT STRICKLAND
There’s a great visual motif with Strickland that emphasizes his growing insanity. After The Asset bites off two of his fingers, he gets them reattached, but we see them turn black and more infected as the film progresses. We also see him grow increasingly unattached and uncontrolled as the hand rots. It’s a gross visual motif, but a brilliant one.
I have to praise Del Toro for restraining himself and exploring psychologically complex characters. This is Del Toro’s most character-driven film to date. Yes, the film has some gore and a couple of bizarre sex scenes, but unlike other films, the sex serves a purpose. Elisa and The Asset’s sex scenes are intimate and highlight their love for each other while Strickland’s disturbing sex scene subtly depicts his lust for Elisa.
Though the film is set during the Cold War, I wasn’t too invested in Michael Stuhlbarg’s soviet spy character. Every time he appears on screen, The Shape of Water derives from its dark fairytale roots and turns into a spy movie, losing some focus and tone.
Still, The Shape of Water is a visual treat and delightful to watch. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a huge competitor for all visual categories in the awards season.