I struggle with Guillermo Del Toro. He’s made movies I really enjoy, like Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (quietly one of the best comic book movies of this generation), but he’s made just as many that seem to leave me cold. Both of his most recent efforts, Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak were deeply disappointing, in part because you could clearly see the passion for his projects all over the screen, but that wasn’t enough to translate into an exciting movie on its own. He has a clear sensibility that’s easy to get on board with, a mix of geeky obsessions, a flair for monster design and a strong visual eye, even if he needs more than that to make something that resonates. Perhaps that’s why he so often finds projects disintegrate in front of his eyes, whether it’s his third Hellboy movie, a high profile adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, or his involvement in the promising cancelled Silent Hill video game reboot alongside the Guillermo Del Toro of gaming, Hideo Kojima. Even if Del Toro isn’t my favorite filmmaker, the prospect of him completing and releasing a project is always exciting just to see what he can do. His newest, The Shape of Water, marks a return to prominence, with a Fox Searchlight-backed awards run poised to make it his highest profile release since Pan's Labyrinth won three Oscars.
The Shape of Water sets its sights on the 1950’s and the life of Eliza (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor working at a secret science facility. One day, a mysterious trunk is delivered to the facility’s water tank by surly, violent security specialist Strickland (Michael Shannon), soon to be revealed as a fish-man hybrid (Doug Jones) to be studied by the military as a prisoner and test subject to hopefully uncover powerful secrets that could tip the tide of the Cold War. Eliza instantly takes a liking to the creature, bonding over their shared inability to talk, and hatches a plan with her coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), flatmate Giles (Richard Jenkins) and a friendly doctor (Michael Stuhlbarg) to rescue it once it becomes clear that Strickland isn’t interested in gathering data on it while it’s alive. Eliza just can’t bear to lose her one real shot at true love.
That passion for film I addressed earlier is certainly evident with The Shape of Water. It continues Del Toro’s trend of mixing his style with established genres to make something that feels familiar and yet still his own. After taking on Gothic horror with Crimson Peak and post-apocalyptic Godzilla-style monster movies with Pacific Rim, The Shape of Water sees him turn to Douglas Sirk romantic melodramas to color his tale. The production design (from Paul D. Austerberg) is a freaky fun melange of classic 1950s decor and the retro futurism of sci-fi flicks of the day, framed with relish at all sorts of kooky angles by DP Dan Laustsen. The result could best be described as Terry Gilliam making his own circus carnival version of Carol, but with more fish monsters. It’s a hyper-specific and unique sort of film that’s become Del Toro’s calling card over the years. And the look of The Shape of Water is perhaps its best trait, with a depth to its set design that always gives the eye something to latch onto even if it’s the fifth time returning to that place. No other 2017 release looks quite like this.
The quality of the presentation was never really in doubt, to be fair. Even though I didn’t like Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak all that much, they still look great. Just like Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone and Blade II look great. He’s always been a visual savant; it’s the storytelling that makes or breaks his films. His script, written with Vanessa Taylor, makes a conscious effort here to focus on Eliza and her experience, generally leaving much of the mystery on the outskirts of the proceedings. A lesser film might have put all the focus on the fish man: his origins, his abilities, how he’ll be used by the military and so on. Del Toro isn’t concerned with any of that; he focused his exposition almost exclusively within the frame of reference of Eliza. He gives plenty of room to establishing her daily routine, cooking hard boiled eggs and watching classic movies with Giles. The Shape of Water paints such a clear picture of who Eliza is that we have a keen sense of her tender heart, her vulnerability, her kindness and her loneliness. And all of that comes down to Sally Hawkins, forced to create these shades of character and personality without benefit of speech. Her face and her body language are remarkably expressive, and she’s buoyed by actors with the quality of Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer playing her confidants. Jenkins is (unsurprisingly) especially strong here, equally lonely and outcast in his own way with an artist’s soul. Michael Shannon can uncork the menace without batting an eye, though it would be nice if there were a little more to his character than simply being a heavy. We get a glimpse of who he is with some quick asides to his home life, but I wanted a little more to sink my teeth into.
That extra bit of spice we get from Jenkins can also be found in Stuhlbarg’s character, harboring a secret that recontextualizes his actions in an enjoyably subtle way. And then of course is Doug Jones, no stranger to Del Toro films, nor is he a stranger to this specific sort of costume. It bears a remarkable resemblance to his get-up as Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films. This is his largest role to date, having previously played all sorts of monsters, but when put under the spotlight he proves he’s up to the challenge. His job is even more difficult than Hawkins’, buried under a mountain of makeup and prosthetics as he is, but he generates an astounding range of emotions that makes him an equal part of the central romance. It’s still odd that his character design is so similar to Abe Sapien (to the point that Del Toro has had to deny that this is a secret Hellboy prequel in some interviews), but that’s at most a surface level complaint.
All told, this is Del Toro’s most complete and satisfying film since Pan's Labyrinth. He’s perfectly at home in the 50’s melodrama trappings, and does some fiendishly clever things with the premise (including a wonderful dream sequence that has to be seen to be believed). Despite the grimy nature of the facility and Strickland’s gleeful sadism, there’s a wholesomeness to this world, a place where people who love and respect each other can get on board with a woman falling in love with a fish because they can tell it’s real love, and real love is too important to let a silly thing like different species get in the way. That sounds flippant, but in practice, it works incredibly well. The performances from Hawkins, Jones, Jenkins and Spencer, the intricate design of every sumptuous moment framed beautifully, all of it adds up to a wonderful ode to classic melodrama through a lens only a unique mind like Guillermo Del Toro could bring to the screen. This is the Del Toro I’ve always wanted, the auteur who can back up his wild ideas and visuals with real content. It’s good to have him back.