Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review originally appeared on the site in September, in conjunction with the film’s opening at the Toronto International Film Festival. It has been updated for the film’s theatrical release.

Writer-director Guillermo del Toro has always been fascinated by ghosts. Sometimes those ghosts are literal — in his movies Crimson Peak and The Devil’s Backbone, they’re the shades of the dead, actively seeking vengeance against those who wronged them. In other films, like his Hellboy movies or Pacific Rim, the ghosts are more metaphorical: representations of unfinished business, traumas that haunt people, or family connections that won’t go away. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the past takes on multiple dangerous forms; in Cronos, it’s just one aging man. This is the theme that connects all of del Toro’s work: the way people carry the past around, and need to move past it to become complete people.

But in his latest film, The Shape of Water, his obsession with the power of the past takes on its warmest and most benign form to date. Here, for once, the dead forms who haunt the living aren’t malicious, confused, or angry. They’re much too busy singing and dancing to take a personal interest in the world they’ve departed. They’re the stars of classic movie musicals, and they do haunt the film, giving it form and structure. But the film’s protagonists aren’t trying to escape the past. They’re embracing its sentimentality, its innocence, and above all, its romance.

What’s the genre?

Fantasy romance, with a strong, sweet overtone of movie-musical.

What’s it about?

Happy-Go-Lucky’s Sally Hawkins stars as Eliza, a mute woman with no family or past. She lives according to a pat, regimented schedule, which largely revolves around her job and looking after her lonely gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). Work for Eliza involves listening to the nonstop patter of her chatty best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and mopping up bathrooms and labs in a secret government facility. The film is set in the late 1950s, the space race is in full swing, and Eliza and Zelda’s employers are obsessed with the Russian advantage in space, and the question of how to get ahead or shut Russia’s program down.

Then one agent, the grim Strickland (Michael Shannon) captures a South American fish-man (played, of course, by del Toro’s favorite monster-embodier, Doug Jones). The creature, somewhere between a bigger, more intimidating version of Hellboy’s Abe Sapien (also played by Jones) and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, is chained and abused, and Eliza instantly sympathizes with him and begins bonding with him. Meanwhile, Giles gently pursues a young, muscular counterman at his local diner, tries to get illustration work in a world that’s moved away from his Norman Rockwell style of art, and obsessively watches old black-and-white musicals like That Night in Rio and Hello, Frisco, Hello. These films give The Shape of Water a constant backdrop of nostalgia and melancholy romance, two things that heavily influence Eliza as she approaches her monster with longing instead of fear. Meanwhile, Strickland approaches it with sadistic fury, and plans to see it vivisected — ostensibly for vague reasons involving the space race, but mostly because he’s more of a monster than it is.


What’s it really about?

This is a Guillermo del Toro film. It’s about the past. Specifically, it’s about Eliza’s mysterious, inscrutable past, and how it affects her present choices. It’s about the way Zelda’s sullen husband isn’t the handsome young man he used to be, and how he’s become a cranky tyrant who expects her to endlessly cater to him because of their shared history. It’s about the way Giles hangs onto his youth and is baffled by the present, where he’s a tired old relic whose skills are passé. And it’s about those emotional, sweet old musicals, where everyone seems endlessly cheery and fulfilled. It’s telling that among the main characters, the ruthlessly evil Strickland is the only one who seems to be thinking about the importance of the future — specifically, a future where his two-kids-and-a-house-in-the-suburbs version of America is the culturally dominant idea, and filthy, inexplicable things like Eliza’s fish-friend have been wiped out.

Is it good?

For audiences who like erotic fairy-tales, fantasy, musicals, and Guillermo del Toro in general, it’s unbeatable. The visuals in particular are marvelous, starting with the dreamy opening scene — seen in the trailer — where Hawkins sleeps in a fully furnished underwater room where nothing seems particularly fixed in place. Del Toro has always been a strong visual stylist who puts intense colors and elaborate settings and…

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