The first thing that struck me about Guillermo Del Toro's delightfully subversive new monster movie is how openly sexual it is. Our daring heroine, a mute woman named Eliza (Sally Hawkins), can be found pleasuring herself in the bath every morning as part of her usual routine. Likewise, the villain of the piece, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), appears to enjoy a healthy, if unfulfilling sex life. So I think it's quite logical to think of the entire film as a metaphor for sexual awakening and sexual freedom, directly going against the squeaky-clean, and often terribly repressive image of American family values in the 1960s, where our little fairy tale is set.
Eliza works as a cleaning woman for a government facility in Baltimore. She communicates via sign language with her two closest friends, her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay artist, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her outspoken black co-worker. One day the government scientists and military men bring in "The Asset" (Doug Jones), an amphibious humanoid who is kept in a tank and mistreated by Colonel Strickland, the man who captured him. Eliza slowly starts to communicate and forms a friendship with the creature. And after learning Strickland's terrible plans, she and one of the scientists, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhbarg), plot a daring escape.
"The Shape of Water" appears to be very deliberately designed as an inversion of the old monster movies and creature features of the Cold War era like "The Creature From the Black Lagoon." Our heroes are marginalized folks like minorities and homosexuals, a Russian spy turns out to be an unlikely ally, and the monster is presented as a charming romantic lead. Our villain aspires to be the paragon of American masculinity, and only ends up embodying the worst abuses of power and spiritual rot. The metaphors are extremely blatant here, to the point where I found them a little too heavily underlined and bluntly executed, especially where Shannon's character was concerned. However, when the film is being a romance, it is a charmer, full of dreamy aquatic imagery, and backed by a fanciful score that does some lovely things with a theremin.
The film is anchored by the excellent performance of Sally Hawkins. Eliza is silent and meek-looking, but very expressive and insistent when she wants to be. Hawkins also completely sells Eliza's feelings toward her amphibious beau, and despite a few silly moments, the romance is played completely straight. With two non-verbal lovebirds, body language becomes vital, and Hawkins and Doug Jones communicate with ease. They even pull off an unexpected, but very tender love scene. The rest of the ensemble is just as strong, particularly Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg.
Del Toro fans will be glad to find his usual phantasmagoric imagery here in full force. The effects work on the Asset in particular is a treat, and he's easily one of the most memorable monsters in Del Toro's considerable cinematic bestiary. Other visual wonders include haunting underwater scenes, the sinister government laboratory, a dream sequence recreation of a '30s movie musical set, a vintage theater, torrents of rainwater, and some of the most enticing slices of pie I've seen onscreen since "Waitress." Visually, "The Shape of Water" is well worth the watch.
And yet, I left the theater feeling vaguely dissatisfied with the film. I wanted more of Eliza and her fishy paramour. The chemistry between them was palpable, but the romance always felt a little one-sided. As fantastic a creature as the Asset was, I wish he'd been more of an active leading man as advertised. The little subplots with Jenkins and Stuhlbarg were wonderful, but they took up a lot of time, and frankly I'm not clear on why we spent so much of the third act with Michael Shannon's cartoonishly evil colonel as opposed to teasing out more of the mysteries around our main couple.
As with Del Toro's previous "Crimson Peak," this is a loving tribute to the films of an earlier age, and is at its best when it fully embraces all the genre conventions of its predecessors. However, at times the lack of subtlety is to its detriment, occasionally undercutting the delicate atmosphere and entrancingly weird romance. With more tightening of the script and a little more editing, this feels like it could have been something great. Instead, it's a solid, daring effort from a director who I'm always glad to find is still working.