Back in January, actor Doug Jones appeared on our own Collider Nightmares and made a prediction about Guillermo del Toro’s then-secretive The Shape of Water: it would end up with del Toro back at the Oscars for the first time since Pan’s Labyrinth. Many scoffed at the time, especially since Jones also revealed that the movie was a love story between a mute cleaning lady and a fishman, but The Shape of Water just had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival days after winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, and I’m here to tell you that Doug Jones was absolutely right: The Shape of Water is not only a phenomenal film, it will almost certainly be a major Oscar player in this year’s awards race.
Written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, The Shape of Water takes place in 1962 America, against the backdrop of the Cold War, and stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a lonely and mute cleaning woman who works in a high-security government laboratory, where a new specimen has just arrived: a mysterious fishman, played by Jones in full makeup. Matters are complicated when Elisa strikes up a friendly relationship with the fishman, only to see Michael Shannon’s terrifying security expert treat the fishman like a wild animal, abuse and all.
What del Toro has crafted here, quite simply, is a love story for the ages. This is an impeccably crafted, sweepingly romantic, and sneakily emotional story of feeling loved and feeling seen, from the perspective of outsiders. It’s quite possibly the best film del Toro has ever made (read Brian’s rave review from Venice here), and it’s no wonder 20th Century Fox delayed pre-production on del Toro’s next project until next spring—the filmmaker is going to be mighty busy on the awards circuit all throughout the fall and winter.
While the Academy has certainly eschewed fantasy films in the past, The Shape of Water plays out more like a fairy-tale than high-fantasy, and it’s wonderfully performance driven, which should be enough to entice even the most skeptical of voters. I think a Best Picture nomination is absolutely in the cards, as is Best Director designation for del Toro. His vision for this movie is perfection, and he executes that vision with an intensely delicate touch; you can practically feel the passion dripping off the screen, but there’s no ego here. Del Toro’s passion for the material exudes off the screen in the performances, story, and characters, not in unnecessary camera moves or cheap narrative twists. Everything is a piece of a whole, and you can tell del Toro labored over the placement of each and every piece, until they were just right.
The performances, I expect, will also hit big on the awards circuit. Hawkins carries this movie as a character who never speaks, but who serves as the protagonist. She rises to the challenge with grace and gusto, giving one of the absolute best performances of the year. She’ll absolutely be in the Best Actress conversation, and while there are certainly other films to see and uncertainties abound at this early hour, I’d go so far as to say she’s the early favorite to win.
But every single aspect of The Shape of Water is impeccably crafted, and that extends to all the major characters. Michael Shannon is terrifying and off-putting as the film’s main antagonist, Jones does a lot covered up by all that makeup, Octavia Spencer is warm and steadfast as Elisa’s friend and co-worker, and Richard Jenkins is heartmeltingly charming as Elisa’s best friend and neighbor. The magic to Shape of Water is that while any or all of these characters could simply serve their narrative purpose and move on, del Toro and Taylor’s script (also a contender for Original Screenplay) fleshes each and every one of them out—they’re all three-dimensional characters with emotional complexity to spare, and it only adds to the richness of the film.
That makes choosing who’s a contender and who’s not so tough—I would maybe give the slight edge to previous Oscar nominee Jenkins for a Best Supporting Actor nomination as the likeliest of acting nominations beyond Hawkins, but the truth is I could see any combination of these performers landing Supporting nods. One thing’s for sure: we’ve got ourselves a frontrunner for the SAG Best Ensemble award.
Again, every aspect of this film is impeccably crafted, and I imagine that’s going to result in plenty of other nominations as well, from Alexandre Desplat’s swoon-worthy score to Paul D. Austerberry’s rich production design to Luis Sequeira’s sharp costumes. I’d also extend consideration to Dan Laustsen’s color-motivated cinematography and, given that this is a major contender, Sidney Wolinsky’s editing is likely in the mix as well.
It’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out, but from my vantage point midway through TIFF, The Shape of Water is one of only a few movies screened here this year that have garnered universal praise and acclaim. Again, there’s still a long way to go, and who knows what wins (if any) may be in store, but the Venice prize was a big boost and critics are falling hard for del Toro’s latest masterpiece. Stay tuned.