This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. With The Shape of Waters being released in New York and Los Angeles this weekend, before rolling out to additional theaters, we are rerunning it.
Guillermo del Toro, especially in some of his more recent films, often seems too preoccupied with his stunning visuals – to be fair, this is what made him famous – and sometimes neglects the emotion of the characters that can drive a story. (Pacific Rim is the prime example of this.) Del Toro has a well-deserved cult following among movie geeks. But sometimes I wonder if that finds its way into del Toro’s thought process – that he has to go bigger and bolder to maintain his reputation with that crowd.
The Shape of Water is del Toro’s best and most complete film. It feels like the culmination of everything he’s done before has finally come together to give us this gem. The striking visuals are, of course, still present, but that’s not what drives the story. Here, del Toro has made about as pure of a love story as I’ve seen in some time. This time, on this movie, del Toro wants to explore these fascinating characters and lets the visuals enhance this telling instead of the other way around. We always knew del Toro had this kind of movie in him – and now here it is and we are all better off for it.
Eliza (Sally Hawkins, who is fantastic and I’m so glad she got a role like this) works as a custodian at a Baltimore secret government installation in the early 1960s. She and Zelda (Octavia Spencer, who is also great; you can just assume everyone is great from here on out because I don’t want to type “great” every time I mention an actor) are assigned to clean the most classified room at this secret location.
In this room lives “The Asset,” who looks a lot like the Masters of the Universe character, Mer-Man. Michael Shannon plays Strickland, a government agent who tortures The Asset with a cattle prod. (Early on, The Asset does manage to bite off two of Strickland’s fingers, which becomes a running plot point throughout the movie.) In South America, the locals thought of The Asset as a god. Here, the Americans look at The Asset – who can both breathe underwater and in open air – as something that can help the Americans beat the Soviets in the Space Race. Strickland wants The Asset dead so its parts can be dissected; the lead scientist, Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has his own secrets, wants The Asset to remain alive.
Eliza can’t speak, having lost her ability to talk at a young age and so uses sign language to communicate. With sign language, she starts to communicate with The Asset and the two form a bond – and eventually Eliza can’t stand the sight of The Asset being tortured and devises a plan, along with her neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and Zelda, to break The Asset out of the government facility.
I still can’t believe I’m writing this, but, now, one of the best love stories I’ve seen in recent memory is a movie about a relationship between a woman and a mer-monster. Oh, and don’t get the idea in your head that this is a subtle relationship that is revealed with innuendo. Make no mistake about it, there’s a pretty fantastic sex scene – followed by a fabulous non sequitur of a “black and white ’50s movie,” dance number performed between Eliza and the Mer-monster.
The Shape of Water will permanently quiet the people (admittedly, like me) who complain that Guillermo del Toro can’t make a complete movie. Well, not only has he done that, he’s made one of the best films of 2017 and one of the best romance films of the last decade. The Shape of Water is heartbreaking, beautiful, erotic, and hilarious. It’s an amazing achievement and it’s going to be a film that we will be hearing about all the way through the Academy Awards. The Shape of Water is a very special movie.
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