‘The Shape of Water:’ another triumph for Guillermo Del Toro. Movies you should know about

December 11, 2017 GMT

‘The Shape of Water:’ another triumph for Guillermo Del Toro. Movies you should know about

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro is known for his creature features, directing movies with weird and wonderful beasts that defy imagination.

But the director often uses his visual wonders as obstacles or as plot devices to advance the story. Rarely has he thoroughly humanized one of his creatures as he does in the upcoming “The Shape of Water,” which revolves around the bond between a mute late-night janitor and a humanoid sea creature with extraordinary healing powers.

Del Toro’s past movies include tales of fantasy like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” superhero features like “Hellboy,” and even “Pacific Rim,” an exhilarating throwback to the Japanese Kaiju movies of old.

The human characters are almost always the focus of Del Toro’s films, with his monsters providing challenges for his characters, or simply a visual spectacle – “Hellboy” is arguably the exception, although the title character in that movie is unquestionably the most human of Del Toro’s movie creatures.

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But the sea creature from “The Shape of Water” is just as well-developed as any of his human characters, and provides the emotional crux of the movie thanks in large part to Del Toro’s skillful direction and the talents of Doug Jones, who portrays the beast under layers and layers of make-up and fake scales.

The story follows Elisa Esposito – played brilliantly by Sally Hawkins – a former orphan and cleaning lady robbed of her vocal chords by an unexplained childhood injury. Elisa works at a research facility in 1960s Baltimore, which serves as the story’s backdrop.

Her best friend is Giles – the movie’s narrator and a closeted gay artist played by Richard Jenkins – who works for an advertising agency on a freelance basis, but is in danger of being replaced as advertisers increasingly prefer photographs to drawings.

The events of the movie are set in motion when the research facility’s ruthless new security chief Colonel Richard Strickland – played by a fantastically sinister Michael Shannon – acquires an “asset” from a South American river in the form of a fish-like humanoid that can breathe underwater and heal even the most serious injuries.

Elisa’s first encounter with the creature comes after an altercation between Strickland and the asset which results in the security chief losing two of his fingers.

After glimpsing the creature and sharing a brief moment of mutual admiration, Elisa begins sneaking into its holding chamber, feeding it hard-boiled eggs and introducing it to music via a record player she smuggles in with a pile of dirty laundry.

Elisa is taken with the creature, who signs with her and doesn’t recoil from her inability to speak or the trio of scars on her neck.

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Researcher Robert Hoffstetler – who (spoiler alert) is actually a Soviet spy named Dimitri – watches Elisa teach the creature sign language and tells his American and Russian superiors that it is self-aware and intelligent, hoping they’ll spare it from dissection.

They don’t listen.

When Strickland’s boss decides that they can best learn the creature’s secrets from an autopsy, Elisa hatches a plan to free it with the help of Giles and her co-worker Zelda.

I won’t spoil the rest of the film except to say that it’s an emotional roller coaster of a movie, as Hawkins and Jones draw the audience into a bizarre but compelling interspecies love story that touches on loneliness, love and natural human prejudice.

Through body language and facial expressions, Jones and Hawkins manage to build sympathy for their characters, advancing their story arcs in astonishing fashion without uttering a single world.

The settings are just as visually stunning as other Del Toro features, as the director expertly transports his viewers to an East Coast city in the Cold War era.

The tender relationship between Elisa and the asset, as strange as it might seem on the surface, makes this movie one of Del Toro’s most experimental and risky films, but the risk pays off and makes “The Shape of Water” worthwhile.

The movie hits theaters Dec. 15.