Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is known for his creepy creativity and imaginatively dark and gothic style, which I recently got to peek into at the “At Home With Monsters” exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. His movies have ranged from character tales about individuals who are haunted (both emotionally by past tragedies, and actually by ghosts) to high-octane action adventures involving bizarre, monstrous creatures. Similar to the movie that put him on the map, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a character-driven romance, but it’s got clearly fantastical elements to it. Essentially it’s a cross between The Beauty and the Beast and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, with a dash of E.T. thrown into the mix. I enjoyed the character drama, but I really wish there had been a few more imaginary beasties.
The one beastie at the heart of this film is an amphibious man-creature (very similar to Black Lagoon‘s gill-man, or Abe Sapien from Hellboy — fun facts: del Toro also wrote and directed the Hellboy movies, and actor Doug Jones played both Abe and the creature in this film. This movie’s story (set in the 1950s) takes place after the creature is captured and taken to a government facility for study (aka every otherworldy creature’s worst nightmare). Eliza is a mute woman who works at the facility as a cleaning lady and she quickly connects with the creature’s pain and loneliness and starts to form a relationship with it. Other characters include Eliza’s co-worker and friend, Zelda (played by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer); Eliza’s neighbour Giles (played by Richard Jenkins), an aging commercial artist and closeted homosexual, Strickland, the facility’s militant security chief and captor of the creature (played superbly by Michael Shannon); and Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, the scientist studying the creature. Because this is more of a character film, we get a pretty good look at each of these characters and really start to understand them and know them. That’s really the strength of this movie (more than the fantastical elements). The characters are quirky and unique and everyone gives a very good performance that drew me into their lives.
Once Eliza finds out the nasty fate in store for the creature, she sets out to liberate him and that’s when the movie kicks into high gear. As much as this is a story about how love can transcend outward differences, it’s also the classic theme of who the true monster really is. As Strickland feels driven to prevent his own failure in handling the creature, his obsession becomes maniacal as he tries to stop Eliza at all costs. These traditional fairy tale themes are given a more mature treatment in this movie, which has a grown-up sense of both sexuality and aggression/violence. Admittedly, by the end I was more sold on the good-guys vs. bad-guy theme than the romance and love theme of this movie. Eliza does mention how the creature was able to communicate with her, and she clearly felt a strong connection to his loneliness, but it just was not enough to convince me of a transcendent bond that they supposedly had. That’s why in the end, though I really liked this movie, I didn’t love it. All the style and imaginative flair that comes with del Toro’s creative touch goes a long way to making the movie special, but in the end it oversold and could not deliver on how magical it was supposed to be. (4 out of 5)