The greatest compliment I can give to a filmmaker is they make movies that aren’t like anybody else’s.
I didn’t much care for director Guillermo del Toro’s first few American films, but then I discovered his early Mexican stuff and fell in love. Subsequent efforts like “Pacific Rim” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” are films I cherish deeply.
Even when he wandered into a hothouse of Gothic silliness with “Crimson Peak,” I appreciated that it represented a singular vision unlike no other.
Like all of del Toro’s films, “The Shape of Water” defies easy convention. It contains elements of fantasy, horror, science fiction, comedy and even, most surprisingly, romance. Like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” it has a timeless quality, as if the story could have taken place a long time ago or a few years from now.
It’s a deeply affecting film that makes us feel and also makes us think. And it boasts no less than a half-dozen terrific performances worthy of consideration during the awards season. Even characters at the edges of the story feel complete and fully drawn.
Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute youngish woman. In the opening minutes we observe her go through the quotidian routine of her day: waking, getting dressed, boiling eggs, shining shoes, a quick round of masturbation in the bathtub -- timed to coincide with the eggs, no less.
I liked that del Toro, who wrote the screenplay with Vanessa Taylor, included this last bit. It’s shocking, and it’s meant to be -- watching the main character get naked and rub one out moments after we’ve meant her. But it clues us in that Elisa is not some sexless fawn who deserves our pity because of her handicap, but a vibrant woman full of corners and contradictions.
After her amazing turn in “Maudie” earlier this year, it seems clear that Hawkins’ biggest competition for the Best Actress Oscar is… Sally Hawkins. She shows us Elisa’s yearning and doubt, but also her bravery and pride. What women.
Her entire life seems to be taken up with two things: her job, working as a cleaning lady at a secretive military laboratory, and her friendship with her next-door neighbor, Giles. Played by Richard Jenkins with humor and grace, he’s a fussy, aging commercial artist who frets about his baldness and loneliness. He repeatedly visits an awful pie franchise simply to chat up the sweet young boy working the counter. We get the sense, without it ever being stated, that Giles lost his day job because of his romantic impulses.
The lab where Elisa toils with her loyal friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is a dank underground steampunk denizen of white coat-wearing scientists and gruff military types tromping to and fro. We half expect to glimpse through an open door and see James Bond strapped down with a laser pointed at his nethers.
One day a hard man named Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives with a secretive container holding a wild water creature that he has captured. Elisa is repulsed by the man but strangely drawn to the captive.
Strickland is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, the sort who wields his privilege as a weapon. He is the man who never fails, because he is always willing to take whatever steps are necessary to reach his goals. To him it’s a simple equation: do your duty, reap the rewards -- rank, prosperity, family, a glossy new 1962 Cadillac DeVille that is most definitely teal and not green.
Elisa starts spending her lunches in the lab with the creature, and soon finds he’s not the fearsome, mindless beast Strickland would have everyone believe. She starts to bring him eggs to eat, plays music to soothe and even discovers he can be taught to use her sign language.
Things go from there… though not in the way we expect.
Doug Jones, a master of costumed performance, plays the amphibious man, with the help of a little CGI. He slightly resembles the Creature from the Black Lagoon, with some outer space alien added in.
The other notable character is Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), the chief scientist overseeing the creature. He objects to Strickland’s rough treatment, including the use of a cattle prod. He wants to learn from their captive rather than experiment upon him. At first coming across as a soulless technologist, Stuhlbarg’s wide, wet eyes clue us into a man whose heart is pulled in several directions.
The best thing about “The Shape of Water” is that we feel like the story could follow any one of these characters down their individual path and still feel satisfied with the journey. And to a large extent, the film actually does that.
It’s a story of two that is actually about many. We’re all connected -- sometimes in ways that are obvious, often more mysteriously.