For 20 years, Guillermo Del Toro has found success in the bizarre and carved himself a niche in the eclectic. He’s done more than anyone (not named Peter Jackson) to create a spot for fantasy in contemporary cinema, with 2006’s piercingly original “Pan’s Labyrinth” serving as the crown jewel of his catalog.
The imaginative Mexican director’s latest effort, though, makes a strong claim for the crown. A more character-driven story than anything he’s undertaken before, “The Shape of Water” is simultaneously a departure from Del Toro’s unfettered imagination and a showcase of the filmmaker at the height of his technical powers.
The fantastical has always been Del Toro’s forte, but “Shape of Water” operates as proof that he can tell a spellbinding story while leaving nightmarish creatures on the bench, while also trading mysticism for a previously untapped amount of realism.
In fact, if it wasn’t for Doug Jones – Del Toro’s living, breathing common denominator – “Shape of Water” could pass for an only slightly hyperbolized noir tale. Not that Jones subtracts from the story; his turn as the wordless, costumed, undoubtedly partially CGI’d merman is one of cinema’s most wondrous creations of 2017.
Even more wondrous: Jones’ strange, captivating chemistry with a terrific Sally Hawkins as the mute and strong-as-hell Elisa, a janitor at the top-secret military lab where he is being held. Their bond is a sublime ode to embracing differences, a pull that only becomes more captivating as the movie rolls along, even as the film’s B-plots try to keep up.
Among those sidebars: Cold War-era paranoia, Russian spies and an increasingly great performance by Michael Shannon, who is only a shade or two removed from the masochistic Capitan Vidal of “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
These narrative detours aren’t completely comprised of recycled components. The trope of Russian collusion here collides with the spirit of scientific discovery in a way that keeps it from being completely predictable. At the very least, it leads to some suspenseful dilemmas and the presentation of an enticing question: At what point does the possibility of discovery outweigh national security?
While Del Toro does enough to keep those side plots afloat in the waters of our interest, it’s still the core relationship between Elisa and the creature that we allow ourselves to be swept up in. Del Toro’s vision feels like a quasi-contemporary Brothers’ Grimm tale flipped on its head – one in which Prince Charming has gills and who is rescued by a damsel who has no issues causing distress for what she loves, and what she simply believes to be right.
Like many of his films, it’s impossible to imagine “Shape of Water” being pulled off as well by any other director. It dips its webbed feet into about 10 different genres – most notably noir, suspense, romance and horror, to name a few – and manages to effortlessly glide through each of their waters.
If there’s anything jarring here, it’s the occasional, unexpected and sometimes gory reminder that, despite the beauty of what we’re seeing, this is still very much a dark story. That’s one Del Toroism that is still in full force.
The world Del Toro envisions is a cold one at first – steely, overwhelming laboratory halls and streets caught in green downpours dominate the setting – until we are taught to see the beauty in its ostensible imperfections. It’s the visual manifestation of an exquisitely cosmic story, but also a comic one – and one that’s very much worth its weight in timely allegory.
In today’s world, Elisa’s altruistic personality stands out, and Del Toro’s dedication to his vision of the two lovers is uncompromising, even when it means moments of subtle discomfort for the audience. Jones’s creature comes across mostly as you would expect a lost, helpless soul to, but Hawkins steals the show sans the CGI/makeup artistry that makes him so visually alluring.
In one scene, the veteran actress puts on a display so memorable in its raw, word-less emotion that it catapults an already memorable turn into one of the best of the year – a performance that is very much worth Oscar gold. She’s wonderful throughout, but in this 90-second-or-so highlight, you have as hard a time taking your eyes off her as you do Jones’s magically realized merman.
Those performances lend themselves to what makes this Del Toro’s greatest accomplishment, even if a case for his very best film requires repeated viewings. “Shape of Water” is his most character-driven effort. He takes a road less traveled – one not inhabited by ghosts, fairies and fauns – but the destination is just as enchanting, and one that undoubtedly still resides in the eccentric imagination.
“The Shape of Water” is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro