Guillermo del Toro is a master stylist of neo-gothic intrigue and supernatural thrills, and with his best work, combines those two elements into satisfying forays into otherwordly cinema. No one will ever say the Mexican-born filmmaker is lacking in visual lushness where his films are concerned and those efforts produced in his native language are perfect examples of what happens with del, Toro perfectly executes that acumen for haunting imagery along with a captivating sense of storytelling. Cronos is one of the more creative spins on the vampire myth of the last few decades, The Devil's Backbone is a better Hellboy movie, in tone and spirit, than the actual Hellboy films he made, and Pan's Labyrinth is a full-stop, probably should have won Best Picture, masterpiece.
It's when he takes a spin at films in English where things get dicey. To be fair, I don't particularly think it has anything to do with the language that's at issue; as the troubles in this area are mostly set in his choice of projects in the first place. Being within the purview of blockbuster entertainment over the quieter, artier kind of films that del Toro actually excels at, leaves him at a distinct disadvantage even when it's a project that he originates like Pacific Rim. But what this career path has carved out for del Toro is something that can simply be labeled as: Spanish-language del Toro: Good!, English-language del Toro: Bad! Or to be less pedantic, EXTREMELY hit and mostly miss.
With The Shape of Water, I'm happy to announce that he's cracked the code a bit. It seemed like he was finally embracing the trappings that make his best work shine with 2015's Crimson Peak, and The Shape of Water sees that confidence come to full fruition with what is indeed, the strangest romance of the year.
Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, a really quite excellent (when is she not?) Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute since birth, part of the cleaning staff at a high security US Government research facility. Elisa loves to watch movies with her closeted artist neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), work alongside her coworker and friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and frequently masturbate in her bathtub. It's this latter detail that immediately grabs hold of you, not in a way that is necessarily gratuitous, but more in the sense that it's an unflinching look at a woman's appetite for sex, and a woman who is also in her 40's at that (if we're to take the actresses' age to be at all indicative of the character's, a dangerous assumption I admit). It's a refreshing blast of honesty right at the outset of the picture, and makes a powerful statement of intent and boldness.
From there, we're introduced to the ruthless Colonel Strickland, who brings with him a recent rainforest capture that he deposits within the facility that Elisa and Zelda work, this amphibian man (Doug Jones, playing a direct descendant of the same inspiration of design that gave us The Creature from the Black Lagoon and perhaps more pertinently Hellboy's Abe Sapien) quickly becomes the subject of experimentation by the sympathetic Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who has his own plans for the creature, and brutal torture by his initial captor. Elisa befriends the creature during his cleaning rounds, and this quickly blossoms into something wholly unexpected, if you hadn't looked at a poster, or a trailer or any of the marketing materials or interviews tied to the film. The fallout from this quickly burgeoning relationship create shockwaves through each character's life, in varying ways.
As noted above, del Toro's sensibilities toward creating picturesque settings is on full display here, and it's arguable that this technical day-dream of a world that he and DP Dan Laustsen breathe life into is utterly arresting from the first frame. From the moment, Elisa walks out of her apartment and perpendicular to the movie theater she and Giles spend their nights above, the viewers is engulfed in a environment that feels ripped right out of the most idealized 1950's day dream, while also set apart just enough from reality to feel within step of del Toro's oeuvre. While waiting for the bus, there's a man sitting on the same bench with a balloon and a whole birthday cake. He plays no part in the film except to add to the coloring that surrounds Elisa, but it's hard not to wonder while you're watching, "what's going on with that guy?". The Shape of Water is filled with little details like that from the outset that adds a wicked three-dimensionality that is irresistible.
Beyond its stylistic pleasures, the other great joy on-hand is the narrative's generally propulsive nature and just how effortlessly it shifts from genre to genre. What begins as a flight of fancy, turns into a bit of a horror film, then becomes a romance, shifts to a Cold War spy thriller, then a heist feature, then becomes a horror film again, and finally turns into an outright fantasy. That del Toro is able to allow these disparate tones to sit alongside one another without the sense of an awkward fit is a testament to the filmmaker himself, a avowed fan of "low-cinema" and his full-fledged embrace of the unique theme on hand.
The Shape of Water is, at its core, a love letter to being an "outsider" and the feeling that you simply do not have a place in this world, no matter what your social status may be. This applies to basically every major character within the film's core cast, from the creature himself, to Elisa whose physical limitations have crafted her own perspective, to Giles' own struggles with his sexuality in a repressive time, and Zelda is a black woman in the 1950's...say no more. Even the white males, Dr. Hoffstetler and Col. Strickland are faced with their own sense of existential dilemma and struggles of morality, with Strickland being particularly a stand-out focus of the film in a way that's wholly unexpected. This is the rare film of this nature that actually spends a good deal of its running time to develop its antagonist and give its audience a sense of understanding of just what external and internal pressures drive him to make the awful decisions he makes. We even get backstory for the kind of candy he eats! That's some attention to detail!
If there's an area that could have used a little more work at the scripting stage, it's sadly within the central romance itself. While the principal ideal that drives both Elisa and the creature together is a very intriguing one, even when you describe it in isolation, in context and as presented here, it feels a little light-weight. It's as if, del Toro, a bit impatient to get right to the good stuff, basically just assumes you will be along for the ride when Elisa is instantly attracted to him, and then a little longer down the line moves their relationship into the physical. Some important connective tissue is missing to make this torrid love affair one that's a bit more earned, and to some degree there's a sense of discomfort because the creature is given very little personality of his own beyond a few longing looks and gestures towards Elisa. There's a thin line between this being an even-footed human/non-human pairing, and one where the human is nearly taking advantage of a creature ripped from the safety of his natural home. One can only assume this was a sacrifice of a reasonable running time, but it seems an odd choice in that it critically injures the central conceit of the entire work.
Provided you feel like you can connect those dots yourself, or just get over the unearned nature of this unusual love story, you'll be treated to a nice display of craft, and while it still falls short of his earlier triumphs, it's a step in the right direction for the Hollywood expansion of del Toro's unique vision of the world that lies just underneath our own.