When dealing with writer/director Guillermo Del Toro, always expect the unexpected. The Mexican filmmaker jumps around among horror, comic book movies, allegorical dramas, and big budget action flicks, populating each with fantastical creatures that only he could dream up.
His new film The Shape of Watertouches on multiple genres, including mystery, thriller, and romance. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman who works as a cleaning person at a top-secret government facility in 1962. She and her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), are present when a gruff agent named Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in a strange aquatic creature, known as Amphibian Man (Doug Jones).
Elisa finds herself drawn to the creature, with whom she can communicate where no one else can. When the government scientists, which include Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), decide the creature would be better destroyed than studied, Elisa tries to come up with a plan to rescue it.
Even with a relatively straightforward plot, the film as a whole defies description. It’s a period film through and through, with its Cold War themes, time-specific music, and scenes of people watching mid-20th century movies and TV shows. But Del Toro also includes incongruous profanity and nudity, sometimes out of nowhere, to remind you that you’re watching a thoroughly modern film.
Much of the enjoyment comes in not knowing exactly what you’re going to see next. Elisa has a codependent friendship with her next-door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), who helps her in key moments. He, like other characters, zigs when you expect him to zag, resulting in a story that’s equally fascinating and confounding.
Not everything is a winner, though. For no apparent reason, Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor delve into Giles’ work and romantic life. Likewise, they take a profoundly odd detour to glimpse Strickland’s home life. The scenes are distractions to the story as a whole, adding nothing but confusion as to why they were included.
Thankfully, the whole thing is anchored by Hawkins’ wordless performance. The way she plays Elisa echoes her breakout, Oscar-nominated role in 2008’s Happy-Go-Lucky. Her wide-eyed, open embrace of not only the creature but life as a whole is a joy to watch, and it keeps the movie from being consumed by its weirdness.
You may find yourself mystified by the time you get to the end of The Shape of Water, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll forget it anytime soon.