The first half of The Shape of Water is a marvel of quiet visual storytelling. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works on the cleaning staff of a mysterious midcentury lab in Baltimore. Vast corridors lead to locked doors, and while we only see what’s behind one of them, it leaves us wondering what can possibly be behind the others.
The “asset” we do see, in the parlance of the military personnel entrusted with his keeping, is an amphibious humanoid. His species is never described, he’s never given a name. He can’t speak, but as it happens, neither can Elisa. The two begin a friendship premised on a little kindness, a little music, and some simple sign language.
In these early scenes, writer/director Guillermo del Toro (collaborating with Vanessa Taylor on the screenplay) is patient and understated, drawing us into the world of a woman whose few frail human connections include her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).
Elisa greets the creature not with suspicion, but with sympathy and a Spielbergian sense of wonder — although del Toro is no Spielberg, and the amphibian is a fascinating combination of endearing and appalling, with a side of sexiness that’s not incidental to what ultimately transpires. Hawkins plays her role with tender deliberation: this is a character who’s used to being unseen, a source of both isolation and freedom.
Her principal antagonist is Strickland (Michael Shannon), an angry white man who’s made far more grotesque than the “asset” he campaigns to dissect. Two of his fingers, reattached after an attack by the creature, go slowly septic over the course of the film in an unsubtle metaphor for the rot in his soul. Strickland comes to dominate much of the film’s latter half, which is unfortunate given that he’s far less interesting than Elisa or her fishy friend.
A mood of magical realism suffuses the scenes that pair share, striking a tone that’s been present in earlier del Toro films but has rarely been developed with such careful affection. A master craftsman of genre, del Toro creates a feeling of suspension that mirrors the free-floating state Elisa strives for. Is The Shape of Water a romantic drama? A comedy? A creature feature? A thriller? Yes, sure, definitely, and yep.
It’s that blissfully wistful tone, buoyed by vintage music and reveries inspired by classic movies (Elisa lives above a theater), that will linger in your mind. A Cold War subplot is entirely unnecessary, and we’re left to wonder at what might have happened if del Toro had chosen to liberate his wonderfully weird ménage à deux from the grinding plot mechanism of a bad man who wants to kill a good thing.
The film is also heavy-handed when it comes to the theme of outsiders uniting. But then, you didn’t expect a creature feature to be subtle, did you? Maybe Sally Hawkins did.