If you think it's high time that Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro joined fellow Mexican auteurs Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant) in the Oscar winners circle, The Shape of Water just may be the movie to do it. The Academy typically turns up its nose at the fantasy/horror genre that attracts del Toro (see: Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone, Hellboy). Not this time. His latest is a Cold War romance about a mute cleaning lady (Sally Hawkins) who falls hard for an amphibious creature (Doug Jones) being used for secret scientific experiments. The film doesn't fit in any of the usual Hollywood boxes; it's a thing of beauty and terror that can't be defined and dismissed as "lonely girl finds love with the Creature from the Black Lagoon," either ... though there is a little of that in it, too. Del Toro works visual miracles in a film spiked with mirth, menace and an extravagantly generous empathy that transcends language.
The emotionally naked Hawkins is unforgettable as Elisa, an orphan who was abused as a child (her vocal chords were cut) and now makes a living cleaning up messes at an underground government facility in Baltimore, circa 1962. Richard Jenkins is stellar – when isn't he? – as her neighbor Giles, a closeted gay illustrator who lives with his cats in an apartment over a struggling movie house, currently showing a double feature of the Cinemascope Biblical epic Land of the Pharaohs and the Pat Boone musical Mardi Gras. Make of those references what you will, though the themes of being buried alive and the healing power of music come through loud and clear in the script by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (Divergent). This is a movie infused with movie love – and neither Elisa nor Giles is lucky in the real-life version. Yet.
Enter the creature, known as "the Asset" by shady government types who captured it from the Amazon, where it's said to be a god. Now, this inhuman prisoner is being abused with an electrified cattle prod by an agent named Strickland (Michael Shannon, making the pain inside his glare speak volumes), who calls the prod his "Alabama how-dee-doo" and sees the monster as a freakish affront to God. Nasty experiments, which will allegedly give the U.S. an advantage over the Russians in the Cold War, await the hapless gill-man. Only a scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) shows some compassion – to be fair, he has his own agenda. Elisa, however, doesn't buy the bogus political and religious excuses for torture. On her nightly rounds, she decides to free the creature from his water-tank lockdown, enlisting the help of her fellow cleaning woman and workplace protector, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Of course, this being a del Toro film, Elisa and the creature fall in love, evoking memories of Beauty and the Beast and King Kong, which are basically the same thing.
It's here that the film rises above any familiar backbeats and becomes the transporting, swoon-worthy love story the director intends it to be. "When he looks at me, he doesn't know I am incomplete," Elisa signs. "He sees me as I am." Del Toro understands: He loves the creature, too. And why not? Though Jones is as forbidden as Hawkins by the nature of their mutually mute roles to articulate his feelings, he creates an indelible portrait of yearning. A contortionist-turned-actor – he played Abe Sapien in del Toro's Hellboy films – Jones surpasses his previous work by making us believe the things that attract the creature to this "princess without words." She feeds him eggs, plays him Benny Goodman records and teaches him sign language, all out of rapt devotion. The result is an acting duet that will haunt your dreams and break your heart.
All credit to the filmmaker and his ace team, notably cinematographer Dan Laustsen, production designer Paul D. Austerberry and composer Alexandre Desplat. The eye is dazzled by a thrilling underwater sex scene of striking carnality, just as the spirit is uplifted by a swirling dance to an golden oldie ("And if I tried, I still couldn't hide my love for you/You ought to know, for haven't I told you so/A million or more times"). You could try this stuff a trillion or more times and not hit Shape's creative heights, thanks to the sheer force of its creator's passion and commitment. Even as the film plunges into torment and tragedy, the core relationship between these two unlikely lovers holds us in thrall. Del Toro is a world-class film artist. There's no sense trying to analyze how he does it. Just dive into the experience. There's magic in it.