In his greater films, del Toro is able to strike a balance between harsh violence and sentimentalism, but the alchemy doesn’t necessarily work here.
The plot is simple enough: a mute cleaning woman and a monster that looks like something out of Creature from the Black Lagoon fall in love. Nothing else in The Shape of Water, including its villain, the allusions to the struggle for Civil Rights and an insipid Cold War subplot, matters. Guillermo del Toro, who returns to his creature feature roots that he hasn’t adequately explored since Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), has lovingly created a film that celebrates classic Hollywood cinema, yet it’s one that is too derivative of his own past work to truly transcend either genre.
Existing somewhere between del Toro’s more earth-bound productions and a Caro/Jeunet film, The Shape of Water features ramshackle apartments, rundown movie palaces, sterile military labs and the bland uniformity of life in early ‘60s Baltimore. In this setting, we meet Elisa (Sally Hawkins) a cleaning woman who spends her days at the foreboding lab, cleaning up after the military shirts and scientists who can’t even properly piss into a urinal without splattering. Along with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), the mute Elisa is more or less invisible, existing only to clean and then return home to her lonely apartment where she masturbates in the bath each and every morning. The only person in Elisa’s life is Giles (Richard Jenkins), her gay artist neighbor who longs for the soda jerk at the local pie shop.
Elisa’s existence is shaken to the core when her employers bring in the previously mentioned Amphibian Man (Doug Jones), a creature plucked from the wilds of South America and now contained in a tank where scientists can study its dual-breathing anatomy and somehow use this knowledge against the Soviets. While all the men in the lab mistreat this creature (with the exception of Michael Stuhlbarg’s humane scientist), Elisa appeals to its softer side, wooing the creature with hardboiled eggs and old LPs. These courtship scenes are quite sweet, though del Toro doesn’t give us enough reason to feel for the monster other than its affinity for the likable Elisa.
The conflict comes when Michael Shannon’s sadistic government worker decides that the creature is better off dead. Much like Sergi López’s fascist Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth, Shannon’s Richard Strickland is a toxic mélange of authoritarian bark and misogynistic rage. Just in case we don’t know how awful Strickland is, del Toro includes a scene of him pounding away insensitively on his wife in their bed. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water shows us who the monster really is. Not only is that conceit somewhat tired, even if del Toro is aping Golden Age Hollywood here with his allusions to Frankenstein and Beauty and the Beast, but Shannon is yet again playing the role of the snarling heavy, something that he can do in his sleep.
The Shape of Water is a movie about outsiders, its most sympathetic characters mute, African-American, gay and a monster. Elisa’s relationships with her neighbor and co-worker feel genuine and lived-in, but it’s difficult to buy the instant connection she makes with the monster. There is an almost instant affinity between the pair and after just the slightest bit of suspicion, the two become thick as thieves. Hawkins is excellent as the reclusive Elisa, but is basically emoting to a man in a rubber suit, one who does little to make the relationship feel realistic.
Like other del Toro films, The Shape of Water features it fair share of gore. Blood and guts feel proper within the dark fairy tale confines of Pan’s Labyrinth and his superior ghost story The Devil’s Backbone, but the flashes of violence here feel odd, especially in a very brutal scene towards the end involving Shannon and Stuhlbarg. While some of the gore, including the Amphibian Man’s predilection for felines and a pair of bitten-off fingers that have been surgically re-attached, provides some levity, this is some pretty heavy stuff for what is essentially a love story. In his greater films, del Toro is able to strike a balance between harsh violence and sentimentalism, but the alchemy doesn’t necessarily work in The Shape of Water. Not exactly minor del Toro (see lesser works such as Pacific Rim and Mimic for that honor), it’s certainly not his best. It has been more than 10 years since del Toro has made a film about the Spanish Civil War. Maybe it’s time for him to return to that milieu.