The five or six people who have always wanted to see Amélie getting it on with the Creature from the Black Lagoon are going to flip for writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s new film.
"The Shape of Water" is a perversely adult fairy tale that plays like a collection of the filmmaker’s private fetishes spackled over with an unconvincing coat of feel-good whimsy. Enchanting and annoying in equal measures, this wistful romance is oddly punctuated with bursts of graphic violence and full frontal nudity, managing to be both cloying and disturbing sometimes within the very same scene. It’s one weird movie.
The year is 1962 and pie-eyed Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, a plucky young mute who lives above a rundown movie palace with a vintage gay best friend (the wonderful Richard Jenkins), a massive record collection and what appears to be a small army of cats. Elisa works nights as a cleaning lady at a top secret government facility, where a kindly scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a gruff military man (Michael Shannon) have just brought in a mysterious discovery from the Amazon.
It’s a 6-foot merman, played by the actor Doug Jones inside a magnificently designed reptile suit. (No stranger to portraying amphibious life forms, Jones also co-starred as the aquatic Abe Sapien in del Toro’s “Hellboy” movies and embodied the iconic monster with the eyeballs in his hands that looked unnervingly like Mitch McConnell in the director’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.”) As usual, del Toro lavishes enormous affection on his creature without giving it much to do, but the film fares best in the early scenes when Hawkins is slowly drawing the sea monster into her twinkly confidence. It’s a hard-R, gender-inverted “Splash” and she’s got the hots for the scaly guy.
Problem is that he’s scheduled to be dissected soon, so Elisa and Jenkins team up with Stuhlbarg’s gentle doctor and Octavia Spencer’s sassy co-worker to try and bust him out. (I guess that even in movies about fantastic creatures from Atlantean worlds, Spencer is still always gonna get stuck playing the maid.) The movie comes to a crowd-pleasing climax with a rousing rescue sequence, but if you look at your watch you’ll realize we’re still only halfway through.
“The Shape of Water” weirdly resets itself around the one-hour mark -- to the point of even inventing an all new ticking-clock structure — and the film’s second half doubles down on the sex and violence as its initial, antic charms give way to something ickier and more decidedly unpleasant. But the tone is off and wobbly even in the early going, as del Toro isn’t exactly adept at handling anything cute. He’s a filmmaker most comfortable in damp, darkened caverns with heartsick heroes, so all the twee gallivanting of Hawkins and Jenkins in this fanciful, lime-tinted CGI cityscape feels like an attempt to mimic "Amélie" director Jean-Pierre Jeunet — not exactly an example to which anyone should be aspiring, especially a talent as singular as del Toro.
The love between Elisa and the creature is more theoretical than felt, with Hawkins doing all the heavy lifting as Jones’ elaborate costume prohibits much in the way of expression. Far, far too much of the film is given over to Michael Shannon’s sadistic martinet, terrorizing the more lovable characters before going home to sexually assault his wife. Shannon has the kind of heavy screen presence that can throw a whole movie out of whack. He’s mesmerizing, but in an internally anguished manner that doesn’t match the other actors at all. There’s an absurdly protracted sequence of him gorily torturing Stuhlbarg’s sweetheart doctor that even Quentin Tarantino might consider a bit much.
Worse are the film’s occasional callouts to civil rights struggles that were happening in America when the film takes place, coming off as an embarrassingly klutzy attempt to place Elisa and the creature thematically alongside the film’s historically oppressed black and gay characters — as if her pescetarian sexual proclivities were somehow equal to the freedom riders. It’s a bad idea and a queasy overreach.
I watched “The Shape of Water” twice to try and get a better handle on what exactly del Toro was going for here, and liked the movie even less on second viewing. It’s certainly a visual feast, taking a character’s comment that “green is the color of the future” and applying it to the entire production design -- every angle and object layered with avocado and emerald shades. Yet for all the careful construction this central couple still exhibits no inner life.
On both viewings I admired the moxie with which del Toro provides these two with an old-timey, black and white, Busby Berkeley-styled dance fantasy, and both times I wondered how such an elaborate feat of craftsmanship could summon so little in the way of an emotional response.
“The Shape of Water” is one of those peculiar movies that clearly means a lot to the person who made it, but leaves the audience stranded on a distant shore.