By: Steve Pulaski
One could make the argument The Shape of Water is this year's La La Land. Like last year's endlessly lovable musical, the film crafts a world not too dissimilar from our own, filling it with fantastical elements and intoxicating aspects of romance that subdue most chances for cynicism to surface. The Shape of Water does manage to break away from parallels to Damien Chazelle's picture with its political subtext and heavy focus on the marginalized. Its primary theme is one that isn't so much controversial but as American as it gets: the cleaners and the underestimated are the unsung heroes of the country.
One of these cleaners is a mute woman named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), who communicates using sign language but still has the ability to hear. She works alongside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) as the custodians of a government-run research laboratory in Baltimore in the Cold War 1960s. The culture of the relatively small lab becomes invigorated with the arrival of a bipedal, amphibious creature (Doug Jones), who arrives submerged in a tank of water and is monitored by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Strickland wrestled the creature in the rivers of South America before transporting it back to the United States. He refers to it as the "asset," one that could potentially have domestic leverage with the space-race underway and the Soviets racing against America to a never-ending finish line of technological and scientific progress.
Strickland is hellbent on protecting the asset from foreign threats, but his biggest one is an empathetic Elisa, who offers the creature a hard-boiled egg one day on her lunch-break. She discovers that it can pick up on basic words in sign language and has an affinity for phonographic music. Overtime, as the two grow closer and share a wordless bond built on the power of gestures, Elisa winds up falling in love with it. She lives with a middle-aged artist named Giles (Richard Jenkins), who becomes an integral player in her plan to bring the creature back to their apartment before releasing it into a canal on a day that brings torrential rainfall.
The Shape of Water mixes grandscale production design replicating industrialized Americana, Old Hollywood influence in costumes and set-decorations, and a plethora of strong performances to make a film that serves as a beautiful swansong for the year. Despite a brown and teal color-palette that reflects the working poor life of Elisa, the film rises above the ordinarily mood-killing visuals to be something that's vibrant. This is the kind of detail I should've expected from Guillermo del Toro, one of the great visionary filmmakers of our time, who manages to marry attractive locations with a story, cowritten by Vanessa Taylor, that does more than simply make room to accommodate such beauty. Far beyond the look of the film, it feels like del Toro was determined to give them a purpose, with a story that wouldn't get lost under the weight of the period, and for less than $20 million, challenged himself to craft a narrative that could compliment it just as well as it could stand on its own.
Thankfully, he also enlisted in the help of some actors that have talent bigger than their names. It all starts with Sally Hawkins, who has a daunting task on her hands. Not only must she convey complex emotions without the convenience of words, the romance she must have features a party who doesn't exist as he is seen. This is a challenge that Hawkins is clearly up to, delivering a marvelous, convincing amount of charisma through desperately few words and a lot of quietly reactive moments that pain or relax her character. When she's alongside the creature her character is bold enough to rescue, she almost disappears into an unrecognizable mold of contentment that finds her submerged in water like it or embracing its scaly exterior as well as a lovely musical number.
Next is Michael Shannon, who I still believe is the best actor of our time. Shannon embraces another role of authority that has him scouring at the possibility that his upper-hand could be squandered by "the help," as he puts it. He's maniacal in a cooperative way; one that allows him to operate in the eyes of the law while making no attempt to maintain any kind of moral compass in the process. It wouldn't be a terrific Shannon performance without some quirky elements, which is why a late scene involving Strickland explaining why he favors a particular kind of candy is pure wheelhouse work for the superbly gifted performer. He occupies a particular space when he's on-screen that tells you that he believes he's in power over everyone in a room, until his match is met in the form of a janitor. Meanwhile, Jenkins and Spencer make sure their supporting performances are just as good in an acting sense, but to del Toro and Taylor's credit, the two screenwriters assure no character is wasted or undermined.
The Shape of Water is scored by the prolific French composer Alexandre Desplat, who creates an enchanting soundtrack for the film. Desplat's music could effectively be called the soundtrack of del Toro's sights; that's how well it fits. It's a complementary addition to a film that has such a strong visual foundation that the other primary aesthetic for it fits like a puzzle piece. The music makes the film's climactic and emotional moments that much more effective and not in a simple, pandering way.
There is the inherent obviousness insofar that the film is a literal "fish out of water" story; I prefer to look at it as the R-rated, live-action version of Lilo & Stitch, another film I didn't really know I wanted until I got it. In regards to the visual influences, the writing, and the music, The Shape of Water resists the low-hanging fruit that would turn it into a light and unsatisfying film with glaring ploys that cheapen what is already an eccentric narrative. The story's seriousness is never comprised and the aesthetics elevate it to being a triumph that is easy to love.