It’s been a while since a Guillermo del Toro movie wowed me and knocked me back on my heels. Neither Pacific Rim nor Crimson Peak really did it for me. I might have to go all the way back to Pan’s Labyrinth, and that was a decade ago. But with someone as strange and singular as del Toro, each film is something to anticipate and savor like a four-star feast. The good news is, The Shape of Water doesn’t disappoint. It’s both weird and wonderful.
Del Toro has said that the film was inspired by seeing Creature From the Black Lagoon as a 6-year-old boy in Mexico. And the movie, which is very adult, has a childlike sense of wonder and fantasy. Set in Baltimore during the paranoid early-’60s height of the Cold War, and painted in an eye-candy palette of greens (from vibrant aquamarine to jewel-like emerald to mossy olive and back again), the film stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a lonely mute cleaning woman who mops up at a top secret government lab where the U.S. military is housing an amphibious gilled creature that the Russians also want to get their mitts on (that’s the sinewy movie-monster maestro Doug Jones beneath the slime and scales).
Richard Jenkins is aces as Elisa’s closeted starving-artist neighbor. The same goes for Octavia Spencer as her loyal wisecracking co-worker. A gonzo Michael Shannon (is there any other kind?) smirks and snarls as the creature’s sadistic, cattle-prod-wielding jailer. And Michael Stuhlbarg does a lot with a little as the scientist who’s sympathetic to the misunderstood merman. But not as sympathetic as Elisa, who forms an unlikely intimacy with it. Hawkins, who was so good in Happy-Go-Lucky and Blue Jasmine, says more with her soulful eyes than she ever could with mere words.
If this all sounds bizarre, well, it is. But it’s also poignant, tender, funny, romantic, and flat-out breathtaking in its shoot-the-moon ambition. There’s even a Busby Berkeley dance-fantasia number! If you’re willing to go with this fishy fairy tale, The Shape of Water is a haunting sci-fi love story like nothing you’ve ever seen before — or dreamed that you ever wanted to see. It’s pure movie magic. A