One of my earliest Guillermo del Toro films that I’d seen and loved was Cronos, a small little flick about an ancient artifact that grants eternal youth. It featured a great supporting character, the nephew of an old wealthy man, played by a young Ron Perlman. Perlman really chews up the role and the scenery, bringing a sort of omnipresent, vibrant energy to the ancient mythology within the films narrative. The Shape of Water has del Toro returning to these character-centric roots, filling the frame with well-defined, and often funny, characters.
Set in the 1960s, del Toro uses the period as a lift to his films overall atmosphere, packing the mise en scene with mossy green highlights, narrow hallways, and plenty of gargantuan laboratory devices to house the creature in; each scene gives off a very steampunk-like vibe.
The film stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute cleaning woman working in a semi-secret government facility (how secret can it be if these cleaning ladies are flying in and out-of-doors as if they were working at a Holiday Inn?) alongside her friend, Zelda, played sympathetically by Octavia Spencer.
There may be a satirical effort being made for the reason that the two women have free range access to the labs, as if the men of the 60s felt that women were so puny and impressionable that it wouldn’t matter what they saw or heard.
Richard Jenkins, typically a terrific but minor character actor, brings a refreshing amount of depth to his character, Giles, a proverbial ‘starving artist’ whose only friend is Elisa. Given that he’s a gay man in the 1960s, Giles struggles to express himself or create meaningful relationships, making it either ironic or just very on-point that his best friend, Elisa, is mute and can’t speak at all. But that doesn’t stop him from rambling on about Old Hollywood musicals and the like.
The creature in The Shape of Water isn’t your typical one, though he may look and move a lot like Abe Sapien, the aquatic creature who happened to appear in del Toro’s Hellboy series. There is an espionage war over the ‘asset’, as they refer to him as, with the Russians infiltrating the facility by way of Dr. Hoffstetler, though Hoffstetler’s heart is more on the side of scientific ethics than it is with the goals of his government.
Michael Shannon plays the clear-cut actual “monster” of the movie, though even his character has an added layer of complexity. Director del Toro explores the values and feelings of an everyday American family man in the 1960s, fresh with a fancy teal car, a nice home and a cold, mentally unstable interior life.
The fact that The Shape of Water is critically acclaimed and earning del Toro a series of directing awards is a fitting cap to del Toro’s fantastic filmography and career. It wouldn’t feel like a lifetime achievement award if he ended up winning best director at the Oscars. The Shape of Water is a sensitive and highly imaginative piece of film art, drawing very close to the same incredible awe and gravitas of del Toro’s undisputed masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth.