After years of near-misses, del Toro hits a bullseye

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Shape of Water
Opens Dec. 22
4 out of 5

As likeable as Guillermo del Toro is, his movies often come up short in achieving his cinematic goals. Crimson Peak was stunning, but too mild to work as horror. Pacific Rim had the right ingredients (robots! monsters!), but the emotional component was too hokey to engage the audience.

With The Shape of Water, del Toro finally hits the sweet spot: an old-fashioned romance that embraces genre conventions, but uses them on characters that seldom get acknowledged — the outsiders, the monsters, the minorities.

At the peak of the Cold War in the early 1960s, the U.S. government has secured an amphibian creature (Doug Jones) for research purposes. Locked in a facility in Baltimore, the “beast” inspires curiosity from researchers, revulsion from his custodian (Michael Shannon), and romantic feelings from the mute caretaker (Sally Hawkins), who sees beyond the scales and gills and finds a veritable god.

As with most of del Toro’s oeuvre, the so-called “normals” are far more monstrous than the outsiders. There is no worse sin in his universe than unwillingness to empathize, and Shannon epitomizes the worst of America’s psyche: Alpha male with violent tendencies that targets “the other” as something he needs to quash, physically and emotionally.

But The Shape of Water is much more than a metaphor. Every character is beautifully drawn, from the closeted gay neighbour (a superb Richard Jenkins) to the Soviet mole (Michael Stuhlbarg) who discovers he is more of a scientist than a spy. Yet the film’s biggest accomplishment is getting the audience invested in the love story between the creature and the cleaning lady, played entirely without words.

Watching The Shape of Water for the first time is touching, but only on a second visit can you truly appreciate the artistry (period recreation, use of colour, gorgeous score by Alexandre Desplat). In a strong year for movies, this one belongs near the top.