The Shape of Water opens with a voiceover indicating quite clearly that we’re diving headfirst into a fairytale. This is a story of a princess who can’t speak and finds love, lust and meaning in the water. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works as a janitor (or professional invisible person) at what appears to be a military research facility in Baltimore. It’s 1962 and she lives above a movie theater, across the hall from her friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), a commercial artist. The two of them buy countless pies at a lunch counter so Giles can visit the guy he has a crush on. They also watch lots of old movies and musicals together. Elisa and Giles come alive when they catch a particularly peppy musical number.
Outside the magic of the movies they watch, life’s pretty routine for both Giles and Elisa, that is, until one day at work when she comes face to face with a top-secret asset. They found the amphibian man (Doug Jones) in the Amazon where people revered him as a god. Now he’s being held captive by the American military, awaiting an existence of painful scientific experimentation. Soon after his arrival, Elisa befriends the amphibian man, falls in love and helps him escape. The Shape of Water is an outsider’s story. It’s about what makes us human and the consequences that come along with that.
Michael Shannon plays Richard Strickland. He’s the man in charge of finding the amphibian man once Elisa breaks him out of captivity. He’s a hard, traditional and dedicated man. He’s also a bit of a misogynist and racist. Shannon creates a character who is oppressive in his rigidity. He’s all manner of ugliness wrapped up in a severe yet somehow disarming package. I will never understand how Shannon manages to make the despicable alluring, but he does it again here with unsettling impact.
Sally Hawkins is quietly intense as Elisa Esposito. She’s flirtatious and earnest. She bores directly into the core of you when she pleads and she’s disquieting when she’s forceful. Hawkins makes a tremendous impact without uttering a single word. She successfully navigates the intricacies of non-verbal communication and mostly puts them on display clear across her face which makes it feel like she’s baring her soul the entire time. She’s the epitome of engaging.
Octavia Spencer is delightful as Zelda Fuller, Elisa’s ride or die. She gives us a best friend who is witty, kind and brave. She’s the comic relief and the kind reality check. She’s impossible to resist. She's also not the only one who brought their A-game. I recognized Richard Jenkins’ face immediately when he popped up on screen. I’d seen him around but I wasn’t expecting his performance to give me pause. That’s literal in the classic sense because at one point in the movie theater, I sat back in my seat and thought, “Jesus he’s good. How did I not notice that before now?” True story.
Guillermo del Toro creates a fairytale environment that’s both menacing and ethereal. The water’s always nearby: the raindrops, the shower heads, the blues and greens that set most every scene. It makes you feel like you’re submerged in a world that’s far away but familiar. I like my movies with a little magic. I love that del Toro’s brand of magic is a little more overt. He takes risks while maintaining elegance in his extravagance and execution. He creates something better than a fairy tale and more like an alternate reality. And, as far as I'm concerned, that's what movies are meant to do.