A near seamless melding of classic sci-fi/fantasy and contemporary cinematic effects, presented from a modern perspective, Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” (Fox Searchlight) is a story of “love, loss and the monster who tried to destroy it all,” set during the 1960’s Cold War era. Mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a “princess without voice,” lives upstairs of a movie theater in Baltimore. An orphan whose voice box was cut when she was a baby, Elisa has a special friendship with gay next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins in a performance worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nod), a freelance commercial illustrator who is the “proverbial starving artist.”
Elisa’s daily routine consists of pleasuring herself in the bathtub, eating hardboiled eggs, and riding the bus to work at the secret government laboratory where she works on the midnight shift cleaning crew. Lucky for Elisa, her friend and co-worker Zelda (the always wonderful Octavia Spencer) talks enough for both of them.
Elisa and Zelda are in the containment area when a new, sensitive asset from South America – picture a more advanced version of the “creature from the Black Lagoon” – is brought in to be housed at the facility. The high security nature of the situation causes Elisa and Zelda to be rushed out of the room by Strickland (Michael Shannon), a monstrous, sadistic and racist security man who delights in abusing the gentle being with a high-tech cattle prod. When the creature fights back, resulting in Strickland losing two fingers, his hatred of the asset, which he considers an “affront”, only increases.
Elisa, who takes her meal breaks in the room where the amphibian man (portrayed by Doug Jones) is kept in a water tank, strikes up an unlikely friendship with it. She feeds it hardboiled eggs, plays music for it and teaches it to communicate via sign language. It’s a “beauty and the beast” relationship that puts Disney’s recent live-action version to shame.
It’s one of the healthiest relationships in the movie. Sure, Elisa’s close friendship with old time Hollywood movie-loving Giles is lovely. But Giles’ crush on the hot waiter (Morgan Kelly) at Dixie Doug’s pie-house backfires on him. Plus, his work-life is in limbo after losing his full-time job due to his drinking problem. Meanwhile, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), the lead scientist at the facility, is leading a double-life as a Russian spy, under the watchful eyes of his comrades. But creepiest of all is when Strickland comes on to Elisa in a way that would make Roy Moore cringe.
When word comes down from on high that the “intricate beautiful” asset is to be vivisected for research and then destroyed, a lovestruck Elisa devises a plan to save it. Before you know it, she’s convinced Giles and Zelda to assist her, as well as Dr. Hoffstetler. Narrowly escaping death at the hands of Strickland, the creature is whisked away to the bathtub at Elisa’s apartment, where she plans to keep it until enough rain fills canal that flows to the sea and it can be released.
Typical of del Toro, “The Shape of Water”, takes some unexpected turns, not limited to an interspecies romance, complete with sex in a flooded bathroom. There’s also a black & white Hollywood movie musical fantasy sequence. Additionally, the movie’s message about seeing people for who they are, not for what they lack, is sure to resonate with viewers. If ever we needed the cinematic escapism of “The Shape of Water,” it’s now. Rating: A-