What if, at the end of Universal’s classic monster flick, “Creature From The Black Lagoon,” instead of being killed, the titular creature was captured and brought back to America? And what if he was kept in a top-secret government laboratory where he was deeply misunderstood and neglected? And what if he also fell in love with a human woman? That’s one way to think about “The Shape of Water.”
Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, “The Shape of Water” is an intriguing, sometimes messy genre mashup of creature horror, cold war espionage thriller and of course interspecies romance. More importantly, it’s a social drama about the ugliness of America circa 1962, which is where the film succeeds the most. Del Toro asks us to consider who the real monster is: the slimy fish man or the society he’s forcibly brought into?
Del Toro crafts a cinematic atmosphere that's equal parts enchanted and nightmarish. Set in Baltimore, the picture is stylish and colorful in an unsettling way. The color palette is dingy, consisting mainly of turquois green and swamp green, along with a sickly yellow. The world of “The Shape of Water” is both welcoming and threatening. In the neighborhood, there’s a restaurant meant to replicate a homey fifties style, small town diner. The host even cheerfully says: “Y’all come back now ya’ here?” as customers leave. However, when that same host suddenly tells an African American couple that they can’t eat there, we realize said hominess is just a façade. Society here is gloomy and inclusive, to “monsters” like the fish guy and folks who aren’t straight white men.
There is, indeed, a sinister, wide-eyed monster lurking throughout the film but it’s not the fish man, it’s Richard Strictland, (Michael Shannon) the fella who captured him and is abusing him behind closed doors with the Governments blessing. Shannon gives another grimacing, unhinged performance, he can do this sort of thing in his sleep, and the movie certainly isn’t subtle in vilifying the United States government. In this regard, “The Shape of Water” is a dour drama about America’s continued mistreatment of The Other.
Of course, “The Shape of Water” also wants to be an uplifting love story about two outcasts. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman who lives most of her life in isolation, watching movies and old TV shows. She works as a cleaning woman at the same government lab that the fish man is being held. They strike up an immediate friendship (she sits at the edge of his tank feeding him eggs) and fall madly in love. Hawkins is solid in the role but their romance is cold and emotionally distant most of the time. I appreciate that Del Toro takes their relationship in an unexpectedly erotic direction. There’s an erotically charged scene between them involving a flooded bathroom that’s delightfully weird. But overall their romance develops too quickly; their affection feels forced rather than genuine.
“The Shape of Water” also suffers from narrative messiness, especially in the second half. A half-baked plotline involving an undercover Soviet scientist (played by Michael Stuhlberg) trying to get a hold of the fish man ultimately fizzles out. Given how trenchant Del Toro’s critique of American society is, I don’t think the Cold War angle is needed. He would have been better off removing it entirely and devoting that time to the central romance. Additionally, the ending is abrupt and unsatisfyingly upbeat. In spite of the film’s heavy social themes, Del Toro settles for a slightly contrived fairytale ending.
Despite these criticisms, “The Shape of Water” has too much going on for me to out rightly dismiss it. Del Toro puts hard-hitting societal critiques into a bizarre, accessible, genre-bending mold.