The Shape of Water.

The Shape of Water is hands-down the best love story between a woman and a fish-man that you will ever see – and, I would hope, the only one. But despite a trailer that makes it look like a Cold War thriller and a romance at the heart of the plot, Guillermo del Toro’s masterful new film is also a profound meditation on the essential loneliness of mankind.

Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute but hearing cleaning lady working at a secret military facility and laboratory in Baltimore in the late 1950s, along with Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who rarely stops talking but also serves as an interpreter for Eliza’s sign language. One day, the women learn that the lab is now home to “the Asset,” a humanoid sea creature, capable of breathing both in and out of the water, kept in chains and tortured by the security agent Strickland (Michael Shannon). Eliza, fascinated by the creature, begins to eat her lunch in the lab where it’s held, and forges a relationship with the Asset through gestures and shared hard-boiled eggs. Strickland has convinced his military superiors to vivisect the Asset, then kill it, while the scientist Hofstatter (Michael Stuhlbarg) sees that it is intelligent and capable of communication, arguing that it should be kept alive and studied humanely. Eliza, already hoping to rescue the Asset from Strickland’s cruel treatment, learns of the plan and hatches an escape plan with the help of her painter neighbor (Richard Jenkins).

The trailer for The Shape of Water emphasizes the chase for the Asset once Eliza has sprung it from captivity, but that takes up, at most, the last 15 minutes of the film; about 3/4 of its running time is dedicated to the budding relationship between her and the fish, first friendship and then romance. The film requires you to suspend your disbelief in many ways, but the emotional connection between the two characters is convincing: Eliza is entirely alone in the world, abandoned as a baby and raised in an orphanage, with only her neighbor and Zelda as any kind of friends at all; the Asset may be the only creature of his type, and is certainly alone now that he’s been stolen from his home in South America.

But it’s not merely those two who are alone in this film, even if they exist at the script’s emotional core. Her painter neighbor is a closeted gay man in an era when coming out was not a viable option; he’s lost his job due to his drinking, lives alone with several cats, and says to Eliza at one point that he’d starve if she didn’t show up to encourage him to eat. (He also knows sign language.) Zelda is married to a useless husband, complaining daily to Eliza how he doesn’t appreciate or help her.

And then there’s Strickland, the most problematic character in the movie. Shannon’s performance is excellent, as you’d expect, but Strickland is as one-dimensional a villain as you’ll find. He sees the Asset as an abomination, not an intelligent creature, citing Scripture as it suits his beliefs. He’s racist, sexist, and elitist. He develops a spontaneous sexual obsession with Eliza (because she’s mute) and harasses her, while also treating his wife as a prop and his children as if they were barely there. And there’s no attempt to explain his selfish, misanthropic behavior – he is just what he is. This is not a good man making a difficult decision for God and country, or a complex individual faced with a black swan dilemma; he’s a horrible person in every way, which makes him as dull as the serial killer in a horror movie.

The remainder of the film, however, is superb, not least in how del Toro asks you to suspend that disbelief and then runs with the license you’ve given him. There is much that would be ridiculous if you thought about it, but the fabulist script builds the world so quickly and convincingly that very little of what comes after seems out of place. (I had one quibble: why was Hofstatter the only scientist around the Asset? You’d think there’d be a mob of biologists, anthropologists, and so on trying to study it.) The score mixes sounds you might find in French romance films with some more art-house tracks, and even has a fantasy musical number near the end that, again, asks you to just roll with it.

Hawkins should be nominated for all of the awards for Best Actress, and while the competition is stiff this year (Frances McDormand for Three Billboards is also worthy, and you know Meryl Streep will get her annual nod), she might be my pick to win right now. Her role requires her to express everything through expression and gesture, and the character herself grows from this mousy, childlike woman counting out her life in hard-boiled eggs (and other morning routines) to a woman capable of plotting a heist and risking her life for her lover. She’s utterly convincing at both stages of her character’s development. It’s a tour de force performance, with the higher level of difficulty that voters often tend to favor.

Jenkins and Spencer have both earned Golden Globe nominations for their Supporting roles, and Shannon would also be worthy of a nod, although his character’s stock nature might hurt him. This also seems like a lock to earn nods for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Score, at the very least, and if the fish counts, for Costume Design too. I still have three (or more) major Best Picture contenders left to see, but of the 25 films I’ve seen so far this year, The Shape of Water would only be behind The Florida Project on my own rankins.


  1. I just got back from seeing it, which was my second attempt to see it today, but that’s an irrelevant story where I complain about how the multiplex is a fountain of inefficiency and didn’t seem to anticipate the day after Christmas being really busy.


    I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would. I’m not the biggest Del Toro fan, as I found Pan’s Labyrinth, in particular, to be a bit overrated. Also, like you mentioned, the trailers definitely give you a different vibe as to the tone and meaning of the film. But the story was very touching and moving, and the performances were pretty well spot on. I’ve been a fan of Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg for several years, so I enjoy it when they get to play significant characters like this.

    I haven’t put together a ranking for myself just yet, but I think right now this would be in my top 5. Still have to see The Post, Get Out, Mudbound, Call Me By Your Name, Phantom Thread and Molly’s Game.

  2. I’m with you for the most part; I liked everything about the film except the last 20-30 minutes. Unfortunately I think the final act belonged mostly to the Strickland character, whose one dimensionality was taken to its logical conclusion of acting out in extreme violence. I would have admired the film more had it ended (spoiler alert) with the main relationship unconsummated. That would have been a fitting conclusion for what you rightly call a profound meditation on the essential loneliness of mankind, and it would have saved us the worst part of Strickland.