Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a moral tale for troubled times. An Amazonian sea creature held captive in a Cold War-era American research lab is watched over by tyrannical government functionary Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). He tortures the creature and plans to vivisect it in order to one-up the Soviet Union in the race for scientific knowledge. All goes smoothly until a mute janitor, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), starts to fall in love with the creature and tries to save it from certain doom.
The screenplay by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor highlights the everyday heroism of those who would usually be peripheral characters rather than protagonists in a Hollywood film—two janitors (one of whom, Zelda, is played by Octavia Spencer), the closeted illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins), and a monster (Doug Jones). Whether it’s the fast-talking and world-weary Zelda or the shy and retiring Giles, these characters’ acts of defiance are rooted in a deep empathy and opposition to torture, which have also been largely absent from the big screen in a post-9/11 culture obsessed with the merits of torture.
But despite its big, tender heart, the movie often relies too heavily on archetypal figures of good and evil. There are flashes of brilliance in Shannon’s portrayal of a sadistic bully hell-bent on being cruel to everyone around him, but, ultimately, his perversity is that of a simple comic book villain. Hawkins is sweet and brave, but a more complex characterization would have endowed her with more than simple goodness.
Sometimes the film feels like a beautiful children’s movie for adults, with lavish Art-Deco-meets-steampunk sets and pitch-perfect 1960s costuming around a somewhat plodding, hollow narrative center. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography captures a murky underwater world while endowing the film’s surfaces with a slightly plastic, cartoonish patina befitting its postmodern fantasy origins, but the whole affair sometimes seems too willing to stay at the visual level. One major triumph, however, is the creature’s design, a marvelous pastiche of classic sea monsters that is also entirely idiosyncratic and surprisingly sexy.
The film is at its best when it’s not afraid to get weird. Its totally unbashful portrayal of Elisa’s sexual relationship with the amphibian and the few scenes in which their emotional intimacy is allowed to unfold are wonderful, funny, and poignant. When Elisa deliberately floods her apartment so she can have a tryst with her fishy lover, the film really grooves into a fantasy surrealism.
The Shape of Water has been widely hailed as del Toro’s best and most important film, which makes sense in light of the nightmarish echoes of atomic war that have recently re-entered the national consciousness. But I would argue that we deserve a more emotionally nuanced rollicking battle between the forces of good and evil than del Toro’s latest provides.