Only Guillermo del Toro could conceive a creature feature so artistic, violent, romantic, and weird. Even for a director as accomplished with tales of monsters and magic, this is by far his strangest picture for a story so bold with direction so odd. If monster movies seem too docile in the age of the melodramatic Twilight and the milquetoast adventure of The Mummy, del Toro proves that you can have harsh horror elements alongside an erotic factor and still have an entertaining film. Or at least one so strange you can’t help but be fascinated.
The story dances a fine line between artsy fantasy and a giddy monster hunt. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) has a peculiar yet cozy life for a mute of the 1960s: she lives in a Baltimore apartment just above a movie theater, the sounds of Bible epics heard beneath her floor, and works night shifts as a janitor at a secret government facility where an amphibious creature is being housed. Looking like a more buff and beautiful version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, this monster—known as the Amphibian Man and played by the always-in-makeup-effects Doug Jones—forms a kinship with Elisa. She teaches him how to speak with sign language and lets him indulge in music. You know, standard monster-meet-woman relationship.
Also somewhat by the book is the amphibious creature’s lead captor, the nasty Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Shannon is in full villain mode here, whacking people with his cane, mocking everyone working under him, and freely slinging racist slurs around the research facility. He’s built up to be the harshest of snobs with his violent nature and Cadillac car, such that it’s all the more fun to watch him when he loses any bit of control.
A standout character of the picture is Elisa’s neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins). He’s a commercial artist but looked down upon by his agency, which always wants a change and rarely let him inside the building. He’s a gay man, but frustratingly closeted and secretly pines after the manager of a diner, ordering so much pie he has dozens of slices in his fridge. He seems to relate a lot easier than most to the monster, making the apparent comparison about neither of them having no proper place in society.
Del Toro’s style is exceptional in this picture. He shoots the rustic Baltimore apartments in a manner that almost fools the viewer into believing it takes place in France; the research facility, meanwhile, feels like another era entirely, and its enclosed environment somehow seems both sterile and grimy. Elisa and her talkative coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) try to keep the place spick-and-span but will still find themselves mopping urine off the bathroom stalls or pools of blood from labs. The director also uses the 1960s setting well, with the Red Scare leading to a Russian spy who finds himself regretting working for both sides. Of course, the soundtrack rips a few notable melodies of the time, but it also goes for the bolder choices in setting the atmosphere; an accordion is used for Elisa’s evening routine, and otherworldly sound occupies the monster scenes.
The script doesn’t offer up any big surprises for this rescue-the-monster formula, but del Toro does incorporate some surreal touches to make it wickedly entertaining. Elisa and Giles have a close friendship that develops over watching old movies on TV, mostly the pictures with song and dance. This leads to Elisa perfecting her dance moves in the hallway and later imagining herself dancing with the Amphibian Man on a dance floor while a big band plays. That’s crazy, but not half as wild as when she decides to take their relationship to the next level. (Oh yes—as has been noted elsewhere, this movie goes there.)
If The Shape of Water may not be Guillermo del Toro’s best film, it’s by far his most experimental in tone and style. Nothing feels off limits the way it just goes for it in scenes I didn’t expect and dialogue that’s refreshingly blunt and believable. When it’s romantic, it’s touching and remarkably innocent. When it’s violent, it’s gloriously grotesque, with severed limbs, bloody messes, and one particularly gross scene involving a bullet wound and a finger. Where other filmmakers fear to dread, del Toro knowingly marches forward with a film that never fails to astound in some aspect. It’s not every film that can make a human/creature romance like this one appear as sweet as it is silly.