“The Shape of Water” Movie Review

     Leave it writer / director Guillermo del Toro (“Crimson Peak”, “Pacific Rim”) to yet again be the one to provide this award season’s most original and provocative entry, a film destined to become, perhaps, the strangest love story ever told.  “The Shape of Water”, with its well drawn and richly detailed characters will challenge your thinking when it comes to attraction and relationships, as it ponders the thoughts of the lonely and misguided who look each day for something positive that will move their lives forward.  Set in the 1960s, del Toro explores a world where many of the ugly truths about today’s world were clearly building their foundations.  A world of despicable misogyny and racism that has wrongly put many on the outside looking in.  And aside from the human characters in the film who fit into this predicament, the story centers around a being who looks different than the rest of us and how he is ultimately judged as a threat amidst Cold War paranoia.

     Deep within the bowels of a government scientific research facility that shares characteristics with both those seen in early Bond films, as well as the epicenter of the odd goings on in “Stranger Things”, an amphibious, but human like sea creature has been brought in by the military to be studied.  Played by Doug Jones,  his glowing blue skin and fishlike eyes are the highlights of what appears to be the body of man.  The creature was captured and brought in by a military operative named Richard (Michael Shannon), who sees the being as a threat to national security and seems to relish the opportunity to enforce his powerful position with needless torture and violence.  

     Within the facility, a janitorial staff is given access to the labs, including the one housing the creature, in order to clean them. We meet Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) early in the film, learning much about their lives through conversation, which verbally speaking goes one way since Elisa is mute.  Zelda talks about the trials of married life with her husband, as her and Elisa mop floors, clean urinals, and scrub toilets, receiving replies from Elisa via sign language that are every bit as colorful and full of life as those spoken out loud.  They also happen to be in the room when the creature is first delivered, sparking an obvious and immediate interest in what has just arrived.  Later, the situation is exacerbated when while cleaning in the hallway outside the lab, Richard emerges severely injured, presumably while torturing the creature, who had fought back and bit off two of Richard’s fingers.

     The subsequent cleaning of the lab after the incident gives way for Elisa to have her first contact with the creature, which serves as the beginning of the unlikeliest of relationships.  We are never told exactly how Elisa got the scars on her neck that must have something to do with why she can’t speak, but there is a clear indication she spends her days in a state of loneliness and despair.  She has a friend, an older man who lives next door to her named Giles (Richard Jenkins), but there is never a hint of anything more than the companionship both need.  

     An entire film could have been made about Giles alone.  An artist who spends his days working in solidarity, we are given information throughout that indicates all didn’t go well for him during his career, likely due to a drinking problem, and he has no one but Elisa in his life to share anything with.  Elisa’s life is one of routine.  She gets up in the morning and makes breakfast and a lunch to take to work.  She arrives just in time to take advantage of Zelda’s place in the clock in line and does her work without complaint, though you can see through her actions she has the same hopes and dreams we all do, even with her supposed limitations.  Elisa also shares a lot in common with the creature.  Using sign language, Elisa is able to teach him how to intelligently communicate, thus creating the beginnings of a close bond the two of them begin to demonstrate during further meetings.

     This interaction is secretly observed by one of the lab’s scientists, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is intrigued by the connection between Elisa and the creature, but doesn't alert Richard, his boss, of what’s going on due to his own agenda.  When the creature is ultimately deemed an enemy by the military, Elisa and Giles concoct a plan to take him out of the facility and ultimately release him back into the ocean.  Along the way; however, something bigger grows between Elisa and the creature.  The kind of relationship I haven’t seen in a film since a clone of Ripley once swooned for an alien queen in 1997’s “Alien Resurrection”.  The Freudian aspects of these characters behavior and the exploration of their sexuality plays a major role in how each of their arcs are determined.  Everything from the way Richard treats his wife, to the way he treats women, Elisa in particular, while at work in a position of power, and the subsequent minute actions of Giles, Zelda, and Elisa contributes to del Toro’s inference that our inhibitions tend to drive our decision making, our personalities, and our well being.

     In a star making performance, Sally Hawkins delivers one of the great screen characters of the year.  And the support she receives from Jenkins, Shannon, Spencer, and Stuhlbarg creates what is likely the best overall ensemble of all the awards hopefuls in that each one of them is strong enough of a character to carry their own story.  Shannon, as the stone faced antagonist, is a relentless figure and a true study of the kind of person who steps on those beneath him in order to remind himself of all he thinks he has achieved.  Spencer creates a calming, but smart influence on Elisa, even while living during a time where her gender and race has her dismissed automatically.  And Jenkins turns in what is likely the best performance of his career, somehow functioning as the glue in Elisa’s world, while desperately needing her support as well.  But it’s Hawkins who shines brightest, giving us a character who not only sees past her supposed shortcomings, but is willing to see past other’s perceived shortcomings as well.  What transpires is not only unpredictable, but is truly a sight to behold.  In this love story, it’s what is deep down that matters, and it’s all that ever did.  GRADE: A