THE SHAPE OF WATER
(***½)
"...a special movie with relevant themes and a strong emotional payoff."

Not Your Average Gill-Man Meets Girl Story

(010218) After going large scale with 2013’s “Pacific Rim” and gothic with 2015’s “Crimson Peak,” writer/director Guillermo del Toro tries a little tenderness on for size with “The Shape of Water,” but warm and cuddly means something slightly different to the famously fantastical filmmaker. He’s created a romance (written with Vanessa Taylor) with his own unique fingerprints, eschewing dewy acts of tenderness for a bloodier, more hostile examination of forbidden connection, which also features far more masturbation than I’m sure any viewer is expecting. Offered a chance to make an R-rated fantasy that celebrates a love for monsters and the kindness of strangers, and del Toro runs with it, delivering his best effort in years, preserving his idiosyncrasies and extremities with an often wonderfully bizarre movie.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins, 2014's Godzilla) is a mute who lives alone, maintaining a friendship with her neighbor, closeted artist Giles (Richard Jenkins, 2017's Kong: Skull Island). She works as a janitor at the Occom Aerospace Research Facility, enjoying a cleaning routine with her loquacious co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer, 2016's Zootopia). Keeping to herself, Elisa’s curiosity in awakened when the Asset (Doug Jones, 2008's Hellboy II: The Golden Army) is brought in for study by Strickland (Michael Shannon, 2015's Midnight Special), a vicious man who’s been tasked with researching this amphibious humanoid creature, with plans to use information to compete in the newly energized Space Race with the Soviets. Tending to the lab that houses the new acquisition, Elisa makes an attempt to befriend the Asset, offering him eggs to eat and music to listen to after long days enduring torture at the hands of Strickland. Elisa and the Asset bond, but time is running out, with sympathetic Dr. Robert (Michael Stuhlbarg, 2016's Arrival), a spy for a Soviets, realizing that the U.S. Government won’t allow the Asset to live much longer, putting pressure on Elisa to think up a plan to protect her love.

“The Shape of Water” doesn’t hide the special del Toro stamp of eccentricity, conjuring a retro feel for the early 1960s, with Elisa living in highly cinematic world where her apartment is located above a movie theater, down the street from a chocolate factory. Her living space is crumbling, rich with textures and wetness, but she maintains a positive existence, preserving curiosity about the world through her senses, while time with Giles and his endlessly neurotic ways provides her with company, creating a seemingly agreeable life. She has a morning routine del Toro emphasizes, using time to hard-boil eggs to enjoy a quick masturbation session in the bath, which is the first speed bump in the fantasyland, finding sexuality underlined throughout “The Shape of Water,” keeping Elisa a woman with healthy appetites and a big heart, strengthening understanding of her interest in the Asset.

The feature looks like other del Toro productions, embracing incredibly detailed environments and outstanding creature design work on the Asset, which appears to scratch all the Gill-Man itches the director had left over from his time on two “Hellboy” pictures. There’s no doubt that “The Shape of Water” looks amazing, with aquatic motifs and cavernous sets to work with. However, del Toro and Taylor are working on a more intimate study of longing, with all the tech credits coming secondary to heartache, finding Elisa reaching out to a creature for companionship, taking a chance on a mystery beast from deepest South America, sparking to something pure about the arrival. Giles has his needs too, trying to catch the eye of a young man who owns a chain pie shop, enduring awful baked goods just to spend a moment with the handsome guy. Even Zelda has a bit of a home life, struggling with her deadbeat husband. Cruelties and connections register deeply, giving “The Shape of Water” emotional potency, finding poetic moments in the midst of a Cold War thriller, watching Dr. Robert deal with his need to protect the Asset and remain a Soviet spy, and there’s more of a blunt edge with Strickland, who’s insatiable need to humiliate adds antagonism to the effort, as del Toro has never been one to refuse a chance to underline evil.

There’s a love story in the midst of all the initial meeting and escape plans, and it goes where few might think it will, offering surprises to savor and experimentation from del Toro, who retains the Asset’s wild nature, but creates a Beast for the Beauty, indulging in some fantasy sequences. The directors’s never been good with third acts, and “The Shape of Water” is no exception, stretching the chase out past its expiration date, but the set-up is really where the feature counts the most. Actually creating a glow around the union of Elisa and the Asset, del Toro pulls off an impressive feat, and while the film isn’t a radical departure for del Toro, it’s his most cohesively sincere picture in years, confidently handling this attempt at a dark fable. The Shape of Water is a special movie with relevant themes and a strong emotional payoff. It rebukes intolerance, affirms love in all its forms and guises, and does so with a strong dose of adventure and suspense. This is one of the year’s best motion pictures.

Directed/Written by:  Guillermo del Toro. Screenplay assist by  Vanessa Taylor.
Starring:   Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins
Released:  120817
Length: 123 minutes
Rating:   Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language

THE SHAPE OF WATER ©  2018 Fox Searchlight Pictures
Review © 2018 Alternate Reality, Inc.