Guillermo Del Toro returns to theaters with a tale that could have only come from his vivid imagination. The Shape of Water is a love story that straddles multiple genres. It's a fairy tale romance, monster flick, and Cold War espionage thriller all at once. It also unabashedly embraces raw sexuality. Guillermo del Toro had a boldness of vision here. The problem is that not everything pays off. Some aspects, such as the lead performances and cinematography, are exceptional. The overall narrative does suffer from plot contrivances and a lack of depth.
The film is set in Kennedy era Baltimore. Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa Esposito, a mute woman who works nights as a janitor at a top secret aerospace facility. She lives above a movie theater next to her artist best friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins). She toils in silence cleaning, while her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) prattles on incessantly. Elisa's world is turned upside down by the arrival of Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). A merciless man, he discovered an amphibious creature (Doug Jones) in South America. The military wants it studied. The United States and Russia have just begun the space race. The creature's abilities may provide a leg up on the communists. Unbeknownst to Strickland, the Russians are keenly aware of its existence.
Del Toro portrays Elisa as a woman desperate for love and understanding. She's drawn to water for comfort. Her bond with the amphibious man begins on an instinctual level. The cruelty he suffers at the hands of Strickland is offset by the bourgeoning relationship with Elisa. Sally Hawkins is absolutely superb. Her character communicates by sign language. Hawkins uses her entire body and rich facial expressions to convey emotions. Elisa is enthralled by her cross species romance.
Much like Pan's Labyrinth and Crimson Peak, Del Toro uses the setting to establish social and racial themes. This story takes place at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Strickland looks down on Elisa and Zelda. They are the help, inferior women. He similarly has no empathy or value for the creature's life. This lesson is laid on with a fairly thick spoon by Del Toro. He hammers in the smug superiority and chauvinism of Strickland, thus making the character one note. You'd think that anyone who discovered a new life form would have an iota of respect for it. Strickland does not whatsoever. He becomes predictable as the villain.
The Shape of Water rushes through plot development at high speed. Elisa and amphibious man have a near instant connection. They go round the bases pretty darn quickly. The coupling feels especially rushed as the creature doesn't say or do much in response. Also, you'd think the only amphibious man ever found, locked in a top secret facility, would have airtight security. It's near comical how much private access Elisa and Zelda have to the creature.
Another issue I have is how similar the amphibious man looks to Abe Sapien from Hellboy. Doug Jones, who plays both characters, doesn't really draw a distinction with the physical portrayal. It would not be unexpected for some audiences to think that this film was a prequel or related to Hellboy's storyline. It's not, as far as I know, but the monster at the heart of the story looks awfully familiar.
From Fox Searchlight Pictures, The Shape of Water is a good effort from Guillermo Del Toro. It's not on par with his best work, but that's a pretty high standard. He nailed the casting of Sally Hawkins. She continues to shine with her gentle gravitas. Not many actresses can pull off near silent nude scenes with an amphibian.