With Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon.
Even though the movie concerns an inter-species relationship between a sea creature retrieved from South America and mute cleaning woman working in a Baltimore science lab, the story is narrated in the beginning and ending by an ordinary human man, Giles, acted by Richard Jenkins. This frames the story as a kind of fairy tale. Other elements are the supernatural feeling of the sea creature whose gills allow him to breath under and above water and an opening scene which unfolds like a dream.
Giles lives in an apartment above a movie theater. More stories within stories play out as the movies are shown. He has been let go from the advertising agency he worked at because of his drinking, and now he spends his time painting what he likes, and trying to pitch new ads, for things like jello. At one point he is advised that red jello is over — the new jello is green. There is a lot of green in this movie.
The time period is the sixties when ad men were important, and women kept house, or worked in subservient jobs. Even though Sally Hawkins has the lead role as Eliza, a mute girl who finds her voice, her part requires her to clean up after men’s piss in restrooms. She and Octavia Spencer are friends, looking out for each other, and when Eliza decides to save the creature who is doomed by the science experiments of cold war generals, Zelda reluctantly does her best to keep it a secret.
The Cold War era and archetypal villain played by Michael Shannon are rather heavy handed, more suited for a Spy vs Spy cartoon in Mad magazine from the period. Shannon is such a gifted actor I wish someone would give him a non-psychotic part to show his range. But here as Richard Strickland he is aggressively opposed to anything that stands in the way of his career. He carries around a stun stick and applies it with seeming pleasure to the creature and later a colleague he suspects of betrayal. He swallows his prescriptions (for pain? it is not made clear) by the handful. The deterioration of his two fingers wrested from his hand while grappling with the creature which I am sure was supposed to show the decline of his mind and soul, were to me just gross. Here is where the sensibility of the director veers from mine to such a degree that I cannot fully enjoy his movies because at times I must simply cringe during scenes like this.
Which brings us back to Richard Jenkins, the reason to see the movie in my mind. Jenkins has all sorts of subtle ways to prove his humanity, his complexity. He is rooted right on this earth. When the sea creature is hinted to have supernatural powers, he hopes they include regenerating his hair so that he will no longer have to wear a toupe.
You cannot deny the opening scene its power: a complete apartment underwater, with chairs just barely floating in place around a table, pictures on the walls, densely crowded, dark, pale green tinting everything, as if a layer of silt had covered the scene over time, and then been flooded, and all the objects miraculously stayed where they were, while water just flushed over them. The Shape of Water is truly about water. Del Toro is an original director with a view of the world that sees the powerless on occasion trying to take charge, only to be brutally defeated. He does not mind gore and violence to illustrate his vision. He takes risks that few others dare, and when they work, it is amazing to watch.