The Shape of Water begins with a montage, set to accordion-heavy French music straight out of Amélie, of a mute cleaning lady named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) getting ready for work. It's the early 1960s. Elisa lives above a Baltimore movie theater. Her neighbor is a charming, closeted gay illustrator (Richard Jenkins). She dances her way down the hall. A fire at a local chocolate factory lends the aroma of toasted cocoa into the air. It would all be impossibly twee, except for one thing: in the middle of this quirky-cute routine, Hawkins gets buck naked and masturbates in the bathtub. And so Guillermo del Toro sets the tone for his whimsical yet thoroughly R-rated fantasy.
Elisa and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work the graveyard shift at a government research facility that has just acquired a new study subject: an Amazonian creature (del Toro regular Doug Jones) who bears a strong resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. While scientists led by Michael Stuhlbarg and a cold-hearted security man played by Michael Shannon squabble over the creature's usefulness to the U.S., Elisa finds herself drawn to him. Fascination leads to romantic attraction, and then the plot's dominos begin to fall.
When critiquing The Shape of Water, I feel like a teacher who pushes his most talented students extra hard. In other words, there's so much good about this movie, and so much enjoyable and inventive and daring, that I lament its unfulfilled potential.
For example, considering how much time del Toro spends on Shannon's character, it's odd that he and his cowriter Vanessa Taylor are so adamant at making him a cardboard villain, thoroughly despicable at every turn. Obviously that was their intent, and it's great fun to boo and hiss at Shannon whenever he appears on screen. What a baddie! Yet if they had invested his character with more gray areas, it would have enriched the story.
Furthermore, Elisa and the creature are seen in only a handful of fleeting scenes before she decides – and I guess this is a spoiler, but it's so predictable that you could see it coming even in the trailer – to help him escape the facility before he's dissected. Del Toro doesn't think it weird at all that Elisa should go gaga so quickly over this slithery merman, and he assumes his audience must feel the same way. That's a big assumption. Perhaps he should have spent a little less time on Shannon and a little more time on Hawkins and Jones, in order to make their characters' romance more convincing. Since it's central to the plot and all.
Despite its story and character issues, I still found The Shape of Water a satisfying experience, with great design and cinematography, fine performances – Jenkins, in particular, is exceptional, with easily the most interesting character in the film – and a nicely unexpected ending. Although its moral code remains frustratingly simplistic, it's still a fun adult popcorn movie.