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‘The Shape of Water’ Is an Enjoyable Fairy Tale That Has Its Limits

Deaf woman meets amphibian man, and sparks fly. Sounds weird, but  Guillermo del Toro’s darkly romantic fable could have been much weirder.

Sally Hawkins talking to the amphibian man in ‘The Shape of Water’ Fox/Ringer illustration

In The Shape of Water, a deaf woman finds love in a hopeless place: a fish tank. Guillermo del Toro’s darkly romantic fantasy tells the story of Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins), a cleaning woman at a government research facility in 1960s Baltimore whose life changes with the arrival of a strange, top-secret new find: a creature — part amphibian and apparently part man — found in the Amazonian rain forest. This is who Elisa falls for: the amphibian man, known as “the asset” among his captors. After the man arrives, bloody from the travails of being captured and transported to Baltimore, Elisa starts to visit his holding tank regularly, stealing away to feed him boiled eggs between bouts of him being tortured by the square-jawed military types who’ve taken over the facility. For the government, acquiring the asset has everything to do with the Cold War, as the asset’s body may hold the key to a new kind of weapon. For Elisa, meanwhile, falling in love and conspiring to set the asset free are more a matter of how she sees herself. She feels like a freak — and he is one.

So why not date, right? “You and me against the world,” et cetera. Hawkins, who deftly signs her way through the entire performance, gives us an Elisa who’s as warm as she is alert and curious, openhearted without coming off as childish or naive. This is very much an adult fantasy — a del Toro specialty, though in this case, what’s not suitable for younger audiences isn’t merely the movie’s intimate sense of violence: fingers getting bitten off, faces beaten to a pulp with gun butts, and the like. That stuff is all familiar from earlier del Toro fare, like Pan’s Labyrinth, with its baby-eating goblins. The Shape of Water is adult primarily because its heroine’s desires, particularly the sexual ones, are adult. In case that wasn’t clear, we see Elisa masturbating in the bathtub within the movie’s opening five minutes.

This isn’t the kind of movie to leave hanging the question as to whether Beauty fucks the Beast, in other words, nor to forget to explain the, like, mechanics of that. That wouldn’t be del Toro’s style. The Shape of Water is very much in the director’s wheelhouse, a cashing-in on the promise of his most well-regarded movies, with its eccentric mash-up of genres, stories, and styles. It’s Creature From the Black Lagoon meets the accordion-core whimsy of Amélie meets a gothically glossy Old Hollywood noir. Aesthetically, the world of The Shape of Water could exist only in a movie: It’s a fantasy meant to play out on the soundstage of our imagination. Politically, though, we’re meant to feel that what’s here resonates far beyond the theater. In del Toro’s reckoning, Beauty and the Beast and the rest get rendered into a savvy but simple fable of acceptance. That’s the charm of The Shape of Water. It might also be the limit.

The movie is overloaded with period-specific hypocrisies, segregated-lunch-counter varieties of racism, and aggressively belittling attitudes toward women. It sets us up for a world in which, given the social behavior toward other humans — Elisa among them — we can only imagine the worst being in store for her handsome amphibian. Indeed, that’s what we get. The main meanie in The Shape of Water is a government bad guy named Richard Strickland, played with menacing stiffness by Michael Shannon. He’s the kind of man you expect to write a torture memo someday. His mission is to work with a team of scientists (among them Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg) to extract whatever information or value he can from the asset with the military breathing down his back. The dude’s got a power complex. He’s needlessly, universally cruel, in a Hollywood villain way, with a cattle prod by his side and, after a bloody confrontation with the asset, two missing fingers that he keeps trying to jam back into place.

Add Cold War spy paranoia to the mix and you’ve got yourself a movie rife with good guys, bad guys, and government secrets. Del Toro’s sympathy is for the good guys, of course, most especially the dreamers, like Elisa, and her closest allies, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a talkative fellow cleaning woman at the facility, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), her sourpuss gay BFF, with whom she lives above an old-fashioned movie palace. These are the people Elisa leans on to save her love from the government fish tank, where he spends his days chained up and getting prodded half to death.

It’s a weirdly pure romance, as far as interspecies love goes, and del Toro instills it all with a further love of movie magic, which is among the reasons The Shape of Water is so enjoyable despite being inherently unsatisfying. There’s a lot to work with here — a government facility heist, a gay crush subplot, a miniature musical. It’s sort of the inverse of a fable, when you think about it: narratively complex where fables are streamlined for clear meaning, but oversimple in its moral demands. It’s as if for all his ability to devise a fascinating world, del Toro can’t seem to figure out how to say much with it. You give me a Michael Shannon so fucked up he covers his wife’s mouth during sex with his bloody, rotting, practically detached dead fingers, and you leave it at that? Bummer. It’s one of the few moments that a major character breaks from the archetype to become something twisted and weird.

I reached the end of Elisa’s story feeling both let down and uplifted: let down because I couldn’t escape the sense that del Toro had failed to make a movie that lived up to the radical weirdness of his own story, and uplifted because, well, everybody loves a fairy tale ending. Del Toro has an eye for violence, kink, and dangerous desires, but his movies usually make me wish he were more willing to exploit them. He hasn’t made a movie as interesting as his interests. The Shape of Water, for all of its beauty, is no different.