The film takes place in a fable-esque early sixties Baltimore amid the height of blind consumerism, social conformity, oblivious futurism and Cold War paranoia. Elisa (Hawkins), a mute janitor working the night shift at a top secret research facility forms a deepening bond with their latest test subject an aquatic humanoid creature with amazing abilities. But when the creature's handler Agent Strickland (Shannon) decides to kill and dissect the creature, Elisa, along with some unexpected allies form a plan to rescue the creature and keep it hidden until it can be freed.
The Shape of Water is first and foremost a compendium of very interesting, very different ideas all melting into fine bubbly brine. It's part monster movie in the vogue of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), part sweeping romance in the mode of Romeo and Juliet. There are shades of 1950's opulence, 1930's escapism and bit of 1960's civil unrest seething just out of frame. A little of Pan's Labyrinth (2006), a little Red Scare cloak and dagger stuff and an overall feel that conjures memories of playing Bioshock when I was a teen (though that last one may not have been purposeful).
Even if none of those particulars appeal to you, the craft and detail in this film can hardly disguise the unbridled passion that's infused in every retro-verve window pane and dingy aquarium. This is not just a world you can touch but one you can feel as exemplified by, among other things, Alexandre Desplat's wistfully nostalgic score and Guillermo Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor's mood-setting screenplay. The result is a strong, consistent tone that evokes a feeling of longing for a forgotten past that may have existed in another dimension.
Story-wise, the film more-or-less unravels exactly how you'd expect with the only surprises coming in the form of visceral extremes. This may arguably be one of the film's few weaknesses though considering it unravels like a fable, you can't really blame it for following through on its tragi-romantic precepts. Every time we as the audience are lulled into a sense of complacency, the film punctuates the moment with short bursts of gruesome violence, sleepy flights of fantasy and/or, shall we say unique sexual circumstance. These moments of adult content, rather than distract, amplify the overall experience like large crystals of sea salt on sweet caramel. It plays out like a dark, bloody, carnal fable whereby true love is a given and monsters are there to be vanquished.
The largest monster in the film is Michael Shannon who plays the menacing Strickland. From one point of view, he's a dedicated family man, a patriotic American and an incorruptible company man. Yet his ruthlessness betrays him, showing that his inner core is just as rotten as his fingers, which the creature bit off and doctors haphazardly reattached. In this situation and in the eyes of Elisa, he's a villain of biblical proportions.
Though not to be outdone in the monster department, the distinctive 6' 3'" Doug Jones manages amazing feats as the amphibian creature. Behind layers of makeup and prosthetics the giant figure has the same level of expressiveness as the demure Sally Hawkins only with occasion to be primal when the need arises. Hawkins, Jenkins, Spencer and Stuhlbarg are all given a chance to imbue their characters with an inner life. Where in lesser hands they'd be relegated to stock, here the black maid becomes the privileged gatekeeper, the communist stooge becomes the moral arbiter and the gay confidante becomes the fallen man given new life.
This bring me to the films larger flaw because we're given so much time to get to know everyone, some of the more romantic moments come across a little unearned. This judgment isn't entirely fair given a lot of "romance" movies suffer from the same problem, but not every movie has an amphibian creature playing paddy-cakes with the gal from Paddington (2014). I for one would have liked to see a few more scenes of them getting to know each other before Elisa goes ALF on everyone's a**es. Of course adding a scene or two may ruin the pacing of the film, which is as artfully maintained as everything else in this film.
Even at his worst director Guillermo Del Toro knows how to use film language; to make us feel for those tap-dancing across the screen with dreamy grace. The Shape of Water is with little uncertainty one of his best and most powerful films to date. It is a beautiful looking, lovingly crafted and as previously mentioned ballsy movie featuring some of today's best ensemble acting and best Auteur (with a capital A) filmmaking. As of now The Shape of Water is on limited release but if it's playing at a theater near you, you should definitely check it out.