At last, a film that simultaneously satisfies my appetites for both 1940s movie musicals and 1950s creature features!
Guillermo del Toro's genre-bending The Shape of Water is both one of the year's finest films and the best and most accessible picture in his filmography - more satisfying, I would argue, that his much-celebrated Pan's Labyrinth. It's a poignant, exciting and fanciful picture that sports one hell of an ensemble cast and, no surprise, also happens to look absolutely gorgeous.
The film opens on Elisa (Sally Hawkins, spellbinding as ever), a mute, timorous woman who in Cold War-era Baltimore works as a cleaning lady in a hidden, high-security government research center. Her life isn't much to write home about, that is until an encounter with a mysterious amphibious creature (Doug Jones) who has been brought to the laboratory for a classified experiment by the barbarous, abusive Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon).
Elisa spends time with the creature, bringing him food and playing records from home, and slowly but surely, a bond blossoms between these two lonely souls. As Strickland becomes more unhinged in the senseless pain he inflicts upon the creature, Elisa mulls a plan to get her new companion out of the lab (and boy does del Toro do a rousing job orchestrating that sequence). Elisa has support from friend and neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins); scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg); and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) but it won't be easy protecting the creature from the exceedingly deranged Strickland.
The Shape of Water offers a little something for everyone.
Like all del Toro pictures, this is a visually remarkable production, with sublime cinematography by Dan Laustsen and production design by Paul D. Austerberry. Vintage horror fans will no doubt devour the film's affection for Universal's 1950s Creature trilogy and movie musical fans - you'll be in heaven during del Toro's tribute to those pictures, set (in gorgeous black and white) to the Oscar-winning Alice Faye tune "You'll Never Know." The action is exhilarating, the romance is sweet and heart-rending and the film isn't without a sense of humor.
Hawkins, in perhaps her most affecting performance to date, never strikes a false note as Elisa and she's matched by Jenkins, Spencer and Stuhlbarg, stellar as always in their respective supporting turns - it's especially welcome to see Jenkins with such a rich role on the big screen, and I sure hope he earns an Oscar nomination. Shannon perhaps offers the fewest surprises among the cast but still instills plenty of vigor into his role, which rings more like a mad scientist than any of the actual scientists in the picture.
The Shape of Water is a phenomenal effort, sure to resonate on at least some level with even moviegoers not terribly fond of del Toro's past productions.