It feels counterintuitive to suggest that a dark, melancholy monster movie could turn into a landmark piece of cinema.

But in the hands of Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water” elevates beyond genre expectations and transforms hearts and minds of cynical moviegoers with an unexpected, deeply personal adventure that will captivate any audience willing to give it a chance.

This avant garde, stunningly beautiful film melds 1960s Americana with classic monster movie and Cold War spy thriller. At its core, “The Shape of Water” is about a mute woman whose mutual infatuation with a monstrous prisoner locked inside a government research facility.

Part museum painting come to life and part “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” the film’s genre-bending execution twists “The Shape of Water” into a darkly complex, richly layered fairytale that will antagonize and intrigue audiences.

Freed from the constraints of dialogue, Sally Hawkins is given the rare opportunity to wholeheartedly emote as the shy, naive Eliza. Hawkins’ natural expressiveness speaks volumes with her eyes and hands painting a picture far more vivid than words would allow.

Actions on the script page and instructions from the director inform her choices, but Hawkins is fully able to create Eliza without limitations. This provides audiences with an unusual, yet intriguing lens to experience del Toro’s imaginative world construct.

Perhaps the most stunning performance in the entire film comes from Doug Jones, a six-time del Toro collaborator who melts into an athletically challenging, nuanced turn as the mysterious creature known simply as “the asset.”

It’s easy to overlook Jones’ work because of the captivating, detailed costume that transforms the wiry, unassuming man into a hulking monster. But for as good as Hawkins is as Eliza, the film’s central romance simply doesn’t work without Jones’ careful, emotional physicality to balance out the story.

“The Shape of Water” revels in its exemplary supporting performances with memorable, challenging turns from Michael Shannon as the film’s primary antagonist and Golden Globe-nominated efforts from Richard Jenkins as Eliza’s closeted neighbor and Octavia Spencer as her co-worker and de facto guardian angel.

While the film’s actors are spectacular, “The Shape of Water” makes its mark on the cinematic landscape due to the deeply innovative, vivid world handcrafted and molded by del Toro. Each nook and cranny in the storytelling, every minute detail in the background or subtle shadow feels uniquely commanded from del Toro’s brushstroke.

“The Shape of Water” marks the pinnacle of the Mexican auteur’s career as if every lesson, note or idea del Toro has had over the past 25 years culminated in a two-hour spectacle that has to be seen to be believed.

With two wins – Best Director and Best Original Score – from seven Golden Globe nominations Sunday evening, “The Shape of Water” is a strong contender to take home Academy Awards later this spring. Hawkins and del Toro have to be considered among the frontrunners in their respective categories, while the film is likely to earn multiple wins in technical categories not given out at the Golden Globes.

The care and artistry put into the film’s production design, makeup, cinematography and sound should put “The Shape of Water” into firm position as a leading contender for Best Picture, where it seems to have passed Christopher Nolan’s war epic “Dunkirk.”

It would be a mistake to passively watch “The Shape of Water,” opting to wait until del Toro’s cinematic opus is available for rental or streaming. On its technical merits alone, “The Shape of Water” to be seen on the big screen where viewers can be completely engulfed by the film’s magical sights and sounds.

“The Shape of Water” is not for everyone. Its roots firmly placed in 1960s nostalgia and unconventional examination of love and sexuality make it a difficult watch for some viewers.

If you can allow yourself to be transported inside del Toro’s mind as he intends, “The Shape of Water” is a rare cinematic experience that might only come along once every decade or so.

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