Known colloquially as the “fish sex” movie, Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is so much more. It is a mash-up of two mid-century genres, monster movies and light-footed romance, directed by a master, with good performances, and a great score.
The best of The Shape of Water is the visual style of early-1960s Baltimore perfectly captured by Del Toro’s eye. This is a film that goes from a bizarre dance sequence to a guy being pulled by a bullet wound in his face. It merges all the genre aspects much more fluidly than can be expected.
Sally Hawkins leads as a woman who lives alone (aside from her gay artist neighbor, Richard Jenkins), is mute, and works as a janitor at a government building. It is there that she and her sassy, black friend (Octavia Spencer) find that the military has poached a sea-creature that is a mix between a Merman and an Amazonian bottom-feeder. They form a connection, as they are both outsiders.
While the three performances above have been lauded, the two that make the film work are Michael Shannon as the colonel guarding the creature and Michael Stuhlburg as the caring scientist. They both always do great work, and here it’s the little things like verbal tics and commanding rooms.
The film’s final third is what ultimately saves it. Up until then it is adult Free Willy. It is the violence and the stakes and the absurdity of the genre-melding that takes the movie to a level worthy of its praise. It is all owed to Del Toro’s writing, vision, and knowledge of film history.