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“The Shape of Water” is partly a code-scrambled fairy tale, partly a genetically modified monster movie, and altogether wonderful. Guillermo del Toro, the writer and director, is a passionate genre geek. Sometimes his enthusiasm can get the better of his discipline, producing misshapen (but never completely uninteresting) movies like “Pacific Rim” and “Crimson Peak.” At his best, though — in “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and now, at last, again — he fuses a fan’s ardor with a romantic sensibility that is startling in its sincerity. He draws on old movies, comic books, mythic archetypes and his own restless visual imagination to create movies that seem less made than discovered, as if he had plucked them from the cultural ether and given them color, voice and form.
The most obvious reference point for “The Shape of Water” is “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” a Cold War-era camp-horror classic about a strange beast, quasi-fish and sort-of human, discovered in the rain forests of the Amazon. In Mr. del Toro’s update, such a creature is brought to Baltimore in the early 1960s and kept in a tank at a government research lab, where he is subjected to brutal torture in the name of science and national security.
“The Asset,” as his minders call him, poses no threat to anyone. He is, as wild things tend to be in movies nowadays, an innocent at the mercy of a ruthlessly predatory species, which is to say us. His particular nemesis is Richard Strickland, a government-issue, square-jawed square played with reliable menace by Michael Shannon. Strickland lives in a suburban split-level with his wife and two kids, drives a Cadillac, reads “The Power of Positive Thinking” and is into mechanical missionary sex (and workplace sexual harassment). His favorite accessory is an electric cattle prod, a detail that links him to the Southern sheriffs occasionally shown terrorizing civil rights demonstrators on television.
A caricature? Maybe. But also a perfectly plausible villain, and in his diabolical all-American normalcy a necessary foil for the film’s loose rebel coalition, a band of misfits who come to the Asset’s defense. The most important of these is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a member of the laboratory’s nighttime cleaning staff, who plays jazz records for the piscine captive, feeds him hard-boiled eggs and before long falls in love with him.
You may marvel at just how far Mr. del Toro takes this interspecies romance — all the way, basically — and also at how natural, how un-creepy, how pure and right he makes it seem. And why not? Folklore is full of frog princes, beauties and beasts. Classical mythology has its satyrs and centaurs, its shape-shifting gods and metamorphosing nymphs, whose commingling and canoodling is part of the human heritage.
Elisa’s interest is stirred less by curiosity than by recognition. Because of her muteness, she is looked at by others — and sometimes regards herself — as “incomplete,” something less than fully human. Her two best friends are Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American woman who works with her, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man who lives next door. The understated, intuitive sympathy among these outcasts gives this fable some political bite.
Bigotry and meanness flow through every moment like an underground stream, but kindness is always possible, and so is beauty. “The Shape of Water” is made of vivid colors and deep shadows; it’s as gaudy as a musical (and briefly turns into one), bright as a cartoon and murky as a film noir. (The cinematographer is Dan Laustsen. The score is by Alexandre Desplat.) Its busy plot moves swiftly — the presence of Russian spies never hurts, especially when one is played by Michael Stuhlbarg — except when Mr. del Toro lingers over a moment of tenderness, a delicate joke or an eruption of grace.
Ms. Hawkins and Doug Jones, soulful and gorgeous beneath his shimmering carapace of blue-green scales, supply most of those. Since neither Elisa nor the Asset possesses the power of speech, they communicate through gestures and, since both can hear, through music. Ms. Hawkins, giving a silent performance in a sound film, will perhaps inevitably evoke Charlie Chaplin, and she moves her body and her facial features with Chaplinesque elegance, narrowing the distance between acting and dancing, turning physical comedy into corporeal poetry.
Mr. del Toro, though he has dabbled in large-scale, franchise-ready filmmaking, has never succumbed to the authoritarian aesthetic of the Hollywood blockbuster. He is a reflexive democrat whose underdog sympathies haven’t curdled into glum superhero self-pity. The most welcome and notable thing about “The Shape of Water” is its generosity of spirit, which extends beyond the central couple. Zelda and Giles, an artist whose advertising career has been derailed, are not just supporting players. They have miniature movies of their own, as does Mr. Stuhlbarg’s scientist-cum-spook. And so, for that matter, does Strickland, though it isn’t a movie anyone else would want to be in, not least because it feels the closest to reality.
In Mr. del Toro’s world, though, reality is the domain of rules and responsibilities, and realism is a crabbed, literal-minded view of things that can be opposed only by the forces of imagination. This will never be a fair or symmetrical fight, and the most important reason to make movies like this one — or, for that matter, to watch them — is to even the odds. — A.O. Scott, The New York Times
Fri & Sat March 16 & 17, 2018, 7:30 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
USA, in English, Color, 119 min, 1.85 : 1, Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language • official site
Screenplay: Vanessa Taylor, Guillermo del Toro, Story: Guillermo del Toro, Director: Guillermo del Toro, Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones