The Shape of Water is ostensibly a love story between a solitary woman and a merman. But the true object of the movie’s affection is its star character, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), and rightly so. Elisa is just about the fiercest woman on screen right now; a less complicated but no less determined heroine than Frances McDormand’s blowtorch vigilante Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. A mute cleaning woman who lives above a grand old movie palace, she has a closely-followed a litany of daily habits that are treated more like chiming celebrations than rote compulsiveness.
Guillermo del Toro follows with exulting care Elisa’s routine of boiling eggs, vigorously pleasuring herself in the bathtub, brushing one of her many pairs of shoes, stopping in with her next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), napping on the bus, and dashing into work where her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is holding a place in the timecard-punch line. It’s all shot with a skip and a bounce, choreographed like a dance routine, that suggests something improbably and irritatingly twee. But then Elisa gets a new co-worker in the form of Michael Shannon, it’s clear that we’re headed for grimmer territory.
Shannon plays Richard, a dust-dry and not-so-secretly perverse black-suited company man who’s part of a web of secret agency and military personnel who run the sprawling facility that Zelda and Elisa work at. He’s theoretically responsible for the capture and study of an actual humanoid amphibian whom he wheels into work one day, having captured him in the Amazon where, he says, the natives treated the creature like a god. But Richard’s reptilian glare and the fond way he fondles his cattle prod makes it obvious that his true mission is the elimination of anything that doesn’t fit his narrow definition of what is good and proper, and if he can do it in a way that causes maximum pain, all the better.
With his anonymous suits, shiny Cadillac, tract home in the suburbs, and fanatic devotion to his job, Richard is the dark demiurge of ’50s America, the sadist in suburbia. To him, outsiders like Zelda and Elisa barely rate his attention—in the men’s world of the Cold War, cleaning women are essentially invisible—while human-like creatures and other things beyond the pale are mutations worthy only of destruction. Set against Richard’s tightly-wound cruelty is just about everything else in the movie, which is a celebration of the beautifully unusual. The production design alone, a mix of sleek postwar chromes and lavishly baroque flourishes that can best be described as atomic age steampunk—as though Jean-Pierre Jeunet directed Hairspray—makes for a cinematic misfit’s playground.
In other words, it’s certain once we see Elisa mooning about the merman’s cell with her crookedly wistful smile and thoughtful repose, feeding him eggs and teaching him sign language, that at some point a ragtag rescue mission is going to take place. What’s more surprising is not that Elisa falls in love with the merman, stories of the fantastic frequently deal with impossible romances of this kind, but that del Toro has her pursue this cross-species lovemaking with such puckishly aggressive desire.
There are so many superlatives that you can throw at such a rapturously alive fantasia like The Shape of Water that it’s difficult to come to grips with the movie’s failings. Like much of del Toro’s work, the issue lies mostly with the script (he co-wrote this with Vanessa Taylor). While there’s nothing wrong with drawing a bright line between good and evil, particularly in a fairytale world like this one, the conflict between the forces of military industrial evil (Richard and his uniformed henchmen) and those of the raggedly assembled outsiders is established with so little ambiguity so early on that it doesn’t leave the story much runway after the first half hour or so.
Del Toro misses no opportunity to hammer home a point, whether it’s having Richard dig his fingers into the mouth of a man he just shot through the face or having Giles not only be rejected in homophobic rage by the counter clerk he’s attracted to but witness that same clerk throwing two black customers out of the store for good measure. That simplistic approach to story also sneaks into Elisa’s attraction for the merman, which can’t help but read as borderline creepy the more it becomes clear just how limited his communication is. The darker thrills of del Toro’s masterpieces like Pan’s Labyrinth come in large part from their shadowy natures. There’s a lot to love in a movie as redolent with cinematic pleasures as The Shape of Water. But a little more mystery would have pushed it toward greatness.