In the early ’60s, at the height of the Cold War, a tank is wheeled into a huge, dank warehouse in Baltimore. Swimming inside is an amphibious creature (Doug Jones) that looks like he may have come from the Black Lagoon. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is determined to extract whatever information he can from the monster, regardless if it causes the animal pain or even kills it; this could be the leg up that America needs on the Russkies. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a lonely, mute cleaning woman at the lab, has very different feelings; after establishing a relationship with the creature, she decides to rescue him from Strickland and the scientists studying him. Offering their help are Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her cleaning partner Zelda (Octavia Spencer).
Director and co-writer (with Vanessa Taylor) Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to fantastic creatures and worlds. Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies are rich with detail, and The Shape of Water shows that same attention to every facet of the film. Del Toro uses color brilliantly, with shades of green and blue drawing us into Elisa and Amphibian Man’s story. There is also a large focus on sound; Elisa doesn’t speak, but she hears just fine, and everything from the ticking of an egg timer to footfalls in the hallway help her -- and us -- connect.
As gorgeous as the movie is, The Shape of Water is buoyed by fantastic performances. Sally Hawkins is perfect as the once-shy custodian who dreams of more and finally gathers the courage to do something about it. Richard Jenkins is also wonderful as Giles. And as always, Michael Shannon, one of the best character actors working today, stands out as Strickland, among the most memorable villains of the year. Strickland’s particular brand of cruelty is bolstered by a drive to be a successful American male, with the right car and the right house and the right family, and Shannon knocks it out of the park.
More than a science-fiction tale or period thriller, The Shape of Water is above all a love story about two misfits whose isolation and uniqueness pull them together against the greatest of odds. It’s also a love letter, of sorts, from Guillermo del Toro to old Hollywood. Peppered with clips from old musicals and other films, The Shape of Water is a marvelous film that pays tribute to imagination. It’s one of the best of the year.