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.