‘The Shape of Water’ is Guillermo del Toro paying homage to Steven Spielberg

The Shape of Water is about a woman who finds love in the most unlikely of places, but trust me, it’s not what you think it is.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is the epitome of bittersweet complacency. She can hear others and breathe in the world around her, but she is trapped in a robotic life. Rendered mute at a young age in a tragic accident, she lives a life of following orders and others leads. She eats the pie that her friendly neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins) desires, and even smokes cigarettes on her break with her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), even though she hates both of those things. Elisa has a soul

Elisa and Zelda work at a secret government funded laboratory buried deep in Cold War era America, circa 1962. When a mysterious creature is brought in for testing and observation, Elisa is drawn to it and forms a relationship that represents a threatening collapse to her world, but also provides the spark she has been missing.

The Shape of Water is something else. If this movie doesn’t make you feel something, contact a doctor. A unique experience that you would struggle to match with in any film released in the last 20 years. The first word that comes to mind when I try to describe visionary director Guillermo Del Toro’s new film is enchanting. Equal parts drama and thriller, this is a classic love story that will put a smile on your face. A crowd pleasing film that blends genres better than most, Del Toro takes a page out of Steven Spielberg’s book in using the science fiction film genre to create a wholly emotional experience.

The amphibian and Elisa have something in common, and a few forces try to break them apart. Chief among them is the volatile Agent Richard Strickland (played by the one and only Michael Shannon). Strickland only sees a hostile alien threat in the creature, swearing to his superiors to take it down once Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is done running his tests. Hoffstetler may have some secrets that don’t begin and end with compassion towards a different species, but Strickland is downright sinister, and the chief bad in this film.

Del Toro’s story is built on a beautiful landscape brought to life by production design master Paul Austerberry and Dan Laustner, whose cinematography paints a pulpy noir coat of paint on a tumultuous period in American history. The look of this film provides enough style points for three films, but Del Toro’s script (co-written with Vanessa Taylor) gives it all the substance it needs.

Hawkins hasn’t been in a lot of films lately, but she makes you long for more with her portrayal of Elisa. Playing a woman torn between the fantasy that regular life can’t offer and the easy world she’s grown accustomed to, Hawkins is marvelous. Without the use of dialogue, the actress says a ton through mannerisms and expression, proving that the first form of acting has nothing to do with words, but creating emotion with your body.

Jenkins’ Giles is a brilliant yet sheltered artist, a man who doesn’t know how to properly connect with the outside world, a problem that has cost him just about everything, except for Elisa. Two broken peas in a pod, Elisa and Giles share some of the best moments in the film. Jenkins can simply do no wrong in film the past few years, an instant cinematic delight. He makes the pity and groveling of so many characters easy to get lost in. Elisa is a lot of like Jenkins’ lonely traveler in The Visitor: a regular person who gets a push from an unlikely source.

Doug Jones does a fine job as the amphibian who brightens Elisa’s life all the while being stripped of his own. Stuhlbarg and Jones provide strong work as usual, but Shannon’s pure menace is well layered. The actor is known for putting the odd seasoning in eccentricity, but Strickland isn’t a madman, just a person with his own code of ethics and raised in a time period where the government turned regular men into mercenary soldiers. He’s bent the wrong way, but Shannon gives him something extra that makes you feel sorry for him.

I’ll skip the Oscar worthy mantra and just say that whoever gets nominated in this film deserves it. They helped create a world that at first feels alien and cold, but slowly warms up. A gallery of characters actors getting their chance to shine in a director’s world that is assured and thrilling. I’m not a fan of everything Del Toro produces, but this one felt special to him, and the casual movie fan should be able to feel it.

This film was everything and more. It also tackled, ever so slightly, the despicable manner in which most people react to something foreign, and how they rush to a conclusion before asking the million dollar question: what is this thing’s purpose and how is it different from me? A thought provoking film that doesn’t beat you over the head with its morals.

In reality, water has no shape. It can be endless and dangerously absent at the same time. Sometimes, it can bring two things together, like a human to a boat or food to a creature or human. It’s connective in its strongest suit, binding a pair of forces in one spot.

In The Shape of Water, two creatures of habit find a light between them that burns bright enough for all of us to savor.

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