Guillermo del Toro sure does like his fairy tales. But like 2006's Pan's Labyrinth or even the Hellboy series, though, they're never really aimed at children so much as they're dark and twisted—y'know, like the original fairy tales wherein people die, the good guys don't always win and flawed and fragile characters are thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The Shape of Water falls somewhere in there, though it straddles any number of genres from love drama, science fiction, old-timey Hollywood musical, etc.
It is the 1960s, and Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works as a custodian for some clandestine military facility that's big on experimentation and decidedly lacking in scruples. Hawkins is adorable as a young mute who lives a very routine life until a mysterious fishman (yup) is shipped to the facility, along with a former-soldier-turned-security-exec/asshole (played by the ever-overbearing and uncomfortable Michael Shannon). Cue extraordinary circumstances and a change in Elisa who, for the first time in her life, feels true kinship for another living being. Like her, the fishman can't much speak, and is perhaps misunderstood; the pair obviously hit it off. But, as is always the way, the brass has other plans—namely, they wanna dissect this creature despite warnings from a facility scientist (the always understated and excellent Michael Stuhlbarg) who may have a secret of his own.
del Toro expertly recalls the tone of his previous works with seeming nods to the works of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children) for good measure. Elisa is quirky and charming, as are her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and co-worker Zelda (a completely on-point Octavia Spencer), while the pleasant-yet-bizarre and distorted version of Anytown, USA, makes the perfect backdrop and counterpoint to the dark dealings of the military base. Shannon, however, seems to be stuck in his character from Boardwalk Empire in his over-the-top bad guy way. The best villains have some sympathetic trait or backstory that allow us to at least try and understand their nonsense; Shannon, however, has neither, and he deserves everything that's coming to him (some of which is super-gross, by the way).
But in the end it's the age-old story of love against all odds that shines through. Perhaps it's a bit predictable at this point, but The Shape of Water still wrests out something sweetly original and exciting nonetheless. Hawkins, however, is the true prize found within. It's brave to take a role with no lines whatsoever, yet her nuanced and emotional performance is staggering in its authenticity. This one will be big come Oscar season, without a doubt.
+Very pretty; very weird
-Michael Shannon is … fine
The Shape of Water
Directed by del Toro
With Hawkins, Shannon, Spencer, Stuhlbarg and Jenkins
Center for Contemporary Arts, Violet Crown, R, 123 min.