Elisa Esposito leads an existence so quiet, she can't even talk to herself as the result of vocal chord damage. In The Shape Of Water, however, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) meets the love of her life at the government facility in Baltimore where she works as a cleaner. Her closest friends are Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), a fellow cleaner who understands the sign language Elisa uses, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), an unemployed ad artist and the superintendent of their apartment building. One night, a creature known as The Asset (Doug Jones) arrives, along with his handler, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). While Strickland has his difficulties with The Asset, Elisa finds herself attracted to the curiosity The Asset displays toward her. Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), the scientist assigned to study The Asset, also takes note.
Strickland's superior, General Frank Hoyt (Nick Searcy), eventually wants The Asset killed after studying it to see if it can be used to American advantage in the growing Space Race. Elisa doesn't want that to happen, but doesn't know that Hoffstetler unsuccessfully objected to the plan as well. She hatches a plan to abduct The Asset, and gets assistance from Giles and Zelda. Hoffstetler helps as well, unknown to them. They get The Asset to Elisa's apartment, and the doctor gives them assistance regarding its care. She fully realizes the apartment is not going to provide a permanent relocation for The Asset. Strickland has a price to pay with Hoyt should the Colonel not retrieve The Asset. In his mission, Strickland makes discoveries that are not to his liking.
The Shape Of Water is set in the early 1960s, as the USA begins to experience cultural and societal changes. While director and co-writer Guillermo Del Toro has clearly created a unique fantasy world in this picture, he shows some clear understanding of this time. So much of it is set in the night time, where people often speak their hearts and act with fewer inhibitions. Elisa can confide in Zelda and Giles, and some of those revelations add a bit of humor and sadness to the film. Elisa and Giles, for example, sometimes spend a bit of the day at a pie store owned by a man known as Dixie Doug (Morgan Kelly), but things are different there at night. The lab itself has secrets beyond The Asset. Del Toro shows a great sense of understatement as Elisa grows to love this being she plans to keep safe. The cinematography of Dan Laustsen beautifully captures the night, as well as the attraction Elisa develops toward the water.
Hawkins's only words occur during a dream sequence, but she delivers an endearing performance as Elisa. Her hands provide an outlet for her expression, and leave Strickland unable to understand as she signs her mind about Strickland's attitude. Zelda effectively covers for her in this scene. Shannon is at his diabolical best as Strickland, a man who knows the loss of The Asset will be his undoing if he fails to recapture it. Strickland shows he likes to show his dominance, not only with The Asset, but also with his wife with and his shiny new car. Spencer and Jenkins add solid support as the ever-loyal friends of Elisa, even as they gripe about the problems that affect them personally. Stuhlbarg is also good as Hoffstetler, a man with his own agenda regarding The Asset. Jones, a veteran of Del Toro movies, also makes a mark as The Asset, who keeps his best abilities a secret from Strickland, while showing a growing affection for Elisa, who is not exactly like him.
The main story in The Shape Of Water can be seen as a metaphor for civil rights. Elisa and The Asset are clearly not similar, but they discover they are good for one another. The two together also bring out the best in each. The other major characters in the movie also show where they would be in that fight for civil rights and other rights. The Shape Of Water affirms the adage that the heart knows what the heart wants. In Elisa's case, she shows she doesn't care that The Asset is not the kind of man anyone would expect her to show any romantic and other deeply personal interest.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give The Shape Of Water four stars. A good film to get in deep.