The great movies aren’t always subtle. Sometimes they’re as big and bold as a classic musical, as brutal as a film noir, as spine-tingling as a creature feature, or as intoxicating as a star-crossed romance. Sometimes they’re practically opera.
In the case of “The Shape of Water,” they can seem like all of the above and more. The absurdly talented director Guillermo del Toro works at the intersection of art film and comic book, with films that slip to one side (“The Devil’s Backbone”) or the other (the “Hellboy” movies, “Pacific Rim”) but that have best come together in his 2006 masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a dark fantasy set just after the Spanish Civil War.
Make that his previous masterpiece. “The Shape of Water” is a love story like no other, and it features one of the year’s most heart-wrenching performances nestled in a supreme confabulation of cinematic craft. Playing a mute cleaning lady in early-1960s Baltimore who stumbles upon a sinister scientific experiment and its watery victim, Sally Hawkins conveys immense arcs of emotion through gesture and bearing alone. Her eyes register everything from meekness to imperious sensuality, and she seems to actually grow in stature as her character becomes ennobled by a most unusual kind of love. This is the kind of acting that makes you grateful you get to tag along and watch.
The government facility where Elisa (Hawkins) and her friend and fellow janitor Zelda (Octavia Spencer of “Hidden Figures”) are employed is a doomy, gloomy castle of concrete corridors and massive iron doors that rumble shut. Scientists and generals stride purposefully about, and there’s a creepy security expert, Strickland (Michael Shannon), who has just arrived from South America with something . . . humanoid in a watery glass coffin. The thing inside is played by Doug Jones in a shimmery, muscular wetsuit, and as Elisa slowly discovers, it has a taste for big band music and hard boiled eggs. It’s intelligent. It’s also kind of hot.
Yes, “The Shape of Water” is the first film to reimagine “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” as an interspecies romance. Del Toro’s themes encompass loneliness and the pain of feeling different in a lockstep world: The Creature is literally a fish out of water, Elisa is cut off by her inability to speak, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), Elisa’s neighbor and friend, is a neurotic commercial artist whose sexuality has exiled him to a decrepit garret studio above a faded movie theater. Even the sad-eyed head scientist played by Michael Stuhlbarg has a secret or three.
Del Toro adores cinema as much as making it, and “The Shape of Water” is a love letter as well to old films and old ways of watching, from the wide-screen double bill of “The Story of Ruth” and “Mardi Gras” in the cavernous movie palace beneath Elisa to the reruns of musicals like “Hello, Frisco, Hello” on Giles’s black-and-white TV. “Water” is even edited (by Sidney Wolinsky) and scored (by Alexandre Desplat) as a musical, with seductive inner rhythms that occasionally lead the characters to spontaneous eruptions of tap-dancing and more, their dreams spilling out into the open.
Del Toro has made a thriller and a prison escape drama, as well, and “The Shape of Water” has moments of nerve-wracking suspense and pulpy violence. If you remember Sergi Lopez’s Francoist army captain in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” you’ll know that del Toro likes his villains dark and demonic. The tightly wound Strickland, itching to use his big, black taser on the Creature and finding that Elisa’s muteness turns him on, is possibly Michael Shannon’s scariest creation to date, and that’s saying a great deal.
Maybe he is too much, but del Toro is the kind of artist who likes to crank the knobs to 11, and is that so terrible in a season of decorous dramas? Visually and stylistically, “The Shape of Water” is a rapture, with Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography and Eugenio Caballero’s production design combining to create a dank steampunk Eisenhower era, one that in the movie’s most unforgettable scene suddenly flowers into an underwater pas de deux.
Del Toro understands that realism is fine but that the movies were made for more. He’s a fantasist with a knack for spectacle, but he lacks the ego of a Baz Luhrmann or a James Cameron. The energy in his movies goes into the rightness of the details, the pride in crafting something you haven’t seen before, and the moments of pure magic where the movie drops everything and comes out swinging. Del Toro believes in fairy tales, too, and in these parlous times that’s a position both unfashionable and necessary.
Fairy tales hew to time-honored story lines, and some may fault “The Shape of Water” for the traditionalism that underlies its phantasmagoric surface. It’s the getting there that bewitches, though, and a performance by Hawkins that’s smart, scared, furious, profoundly erotic, and regal — all without saying a word. Love doesn’t speak in this movie. Instead, it swims with unparalleled style.
THE SHAPE OF WATER
Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor. Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 123 minutes. R (sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language; sensuous ichthyology).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.