Review: 'The Shape of Water'

Guillermo Del Toro' latest freaky fable is a rhapsody in green
Elisa Esposito becomes friends and then some with an amphibious humanoid in the engrossing new film from Guillermo Del Toro, 'The Shape of Water.'

Remember that folk tale about how you could put a book under your pillow and the learning would simply percolate up into your brain? Imagine what dreams would come if your apartment were directly above one of the old movie palaces.

In the splendid The Shape of Water, the mute heroine—Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a Baltimore scrubwoman in 1963—has lodgings above the auditorium of a red-velvet lined theater.

What's playing now is a biblical epic called The Story of Ruth (1960), perhaps there to remind us of the familiar wedding verse "whither thou goest, I will go." On TV, we see Shirley Temple dancing in The Little Colonel (1935) and Betty Grable sashaying with a costumed pantomime horse in Coney Island (1943).

But the most important and uncredited film here is The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and its sequel, the tragedy The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). The Shape of Water is about the passion Elisa develops while working the midnight shift at a government lab. One steel-lined tank of water contains a prisoner (Doug Jones) hauled up from Amazonia; he has webbed hands, blue terrapin stripes on his head, transparent eyelids like a frog, and a quite kissable mouth.

The military wants this amphibian humanoid vivisected pronto, while the scientist on watch, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to stall them. Del Toro, of Pan's Labyrinth, and co-writer Vanessa Taylor show the familiar conflict between the Army and the scientists—between destroying the enemy or letting it live long enough to study it—that's been seen in a hundred 1950s monster movies. On her late-night shifts, Elisa uses sign language to communicate with this creature, a being so "beautiful and intricate," as Hoffstetler judges it. ("Beautiful and intricate" are the words for The Shape of Water). At last, Elisa decides to free the frogman, with the help of her gay artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

There isn't an actor in this film who doesn't bring their A-game, but Michael Shannon excels as the security chief, Richard Strickland, caricaturing the dangerousness and ridiculousness of a midcentury American fanatic. Shannon is a vision of Yankee awfulness: driving an oversize Cadillac, he's as devoted to brute force as he is to Norman Vincent Peale, and he wields his dick and his cattle prod with equal gusto.

Strickland covets Elisa even while insulting her to her face. Want zeitgeisty sexual harassment at the workplace? It's here. Strickland's bad suburban sex scene—with his dim, chipper wife is deliciously awful; it's surprising that the fast pace of this fantasy allows time for saber-toothed politics. Brutal Soviet spies turn up as well, in case we think the critique of Cold War life is too unilateral.

The Shape of Water is a rhapsody in green—algae green, bottle green, sea green, poison green, the acrid radioactive green of fast-food key lime pie. The visual scheme is hypnotic. But to use another phrase from the Story of Ruth, the movie approaches the realm of alien (movie) corn, when the beast starts to display his magic powers, as if he were ET. A badly penned wraparound narration by Giles tells us we're about to meet a princess... but Elisa's endurance comes from hard work, not from breeding. Later, some bad imitation St. John of the Cross wraps up the show like an awkward prayer.

And yet The Shape of Water has its own visual poetry in a story of love and violence, requiring no throat clearing at the beginning, or last words of benediction at the end. Hawkins, topping even her remarkable performance in Maudie, is captivating, sad and sensual.

Hawkins convinces you of this strange ardor in every scene, and she embraces the comedy of it—asked by Zelda how exactly you mate with a sea monster, Elisa gives a smile that says, "Wouldn't you like to know?" This beauty and the beast story is sometimes worthy of the Cocteau version.

The Shape of Water
R, 119 Mins.
CinéArts, Palo Alto

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