The Shape of Water is Guillermo Del Toro's masterpiece. I wanted to wait to see the film a second time before saying that, before pushing Pan's Labyrinth down the stairs and elbowing Cronos outta the way, but now that I have I'm more sure than ever. It does what he does better than he's ever done it before.
It is, in capital letters, a Movie Movie. It's in love with all the Movies that came before it, so it is explicitly about The Movies - Sally Hawkins' character lives above a movie theater and her best friend and neighbor (played with touching delicacy by Richard Jenkins) is an old-school movie queen, losing himself, and her along with him, in the magic of old black-and-white musicals. They tap dance the world's sadnesses away, one Shirley Temple at a time.
But more than being a Tarantino-esque reference machine (every genre there is seems to get a moment to shine in here for at least a minute or two) The Shape of Water feels like A Movie, big and broad-hearted in all the best old-fashioned ways. It is About Love - the way it can fill a room and your heart and make the walls bulge with it, fit to burst. It is, in an ugly world, just the sort of thing we need right now. I hope it takes.
Sally plays Elisa Esposito, a mute woman orphaned in the world who's nevertheless managed to find for herself a little cabal of decent folks, each one making the best of it - better together, at least. She clearly dreams for more - watching Sally Hawkins stare out a bus window you feel as if you can see every dream every person has ever dreamed passing by the rain-streaked glass.
I remember fretting to myself the first time I watched this movie through about the stereotypes Guillermo had settled upon to populate Elisa's world - Octavia Spencer playing another cleaning woman? Richard Jenkins as a musical loving homosexual with a literal limp wrist? But the movie's heart has many rooms, and when a lesser movie would cut away, stick with the lead, The Shape of Water goes pouring off after everybody in ways you don't expect it to - we follow Jenkins to work. We stand around smoking with Octavia on her lunch-break. Hell we go car-shopping with Michael Shannon's Very Bad Dude.
And soon you realize this amorphous quality, this generosity, is the whole point. Del Toro wants us to look deeper, under the thick scaly skin of stereotypes, and see these people, each and every last one, as individuals. Not Others. Everything. Even outside of its amphibious love story for the ages (and oh, how you'll swoon, seeing through Sally's eyes) this movie is a Love Story For Everyone - a call to arms, fins and webbed feet, for us all to be better bigger brighter persons. To cut through the murky deep sea, and shine.
The Shape of Water opens in New York this Friday,
and will roll out across the country from there.