By Joseph Felix
I must admit, I hesitated to see this movie. While Del Toro’s resumé has encompassed blockbuster feats such as Pacific Rim and Hellboy, the idea of seeing a modern-day Creature from the Black Lagoon love story where the monster is kidnapped instead of Julie Adams was unexciting, but it surprised me in every way.
The Shape of Water follows the life of Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a speech-impaired janitor at a secret government facility, whose best friends include Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), an African-American co-worker and Giles DuPont (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay artist. Together, with the Soviet Union scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), they attempt to free the “asset” (Doug Jones): an amphibious creature found in the depths of the Amazon River. The heist must take place under the menacing eye of Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who is determined to use the creature to his advantage in the Cold War. The stakes are only raised by Eliza’s love for the amphibian.
Del Toro masterfully conducts his cast, using their perceived disadvantages in the 1960’s to their benefit, giving the social outcasts their own story. He creatively shines a light on decade-old issues like workplace harassment and unemployment, while never compromising the integrity of his characters for his political agenda. Jones and Hawkins’s body language is reminiscent of a silent movie where love transparently ebbs and flows without words. Shannon brings his villain-esque touch, portraying a cold-hearted patriot with accuracy. The actors wield their quirks with assured precision, while cinematographer Dan Lausten and composer Alexandre Desplat feed their confidence.
Perhaps Del Toro’s unwillingness to stick with one genre is his most significant asset. The film touches on music, romance, comedy, fantasy and horror without ever feeling like the contents of a garage sale left over without purpose. He makes it known they are not mutually exclusive; rather, if they are placed together in the right way, it creates a layer of empathy felt by the human person – maybe amphibians too.