The Shape of Water is a pretentious movie. I’d advise to skip seeing it in a theater. It wants very badly to be an art film. It doesn’t make it. Mainly because it tries too hard. Which goes to the director, Guillermo del Toro. What’s especially tiring: He doesn’t give up easily.
However, and despite del Toro’s cliche-ridden writing and directing–in short, his lack of originality as a scavenger of genres–there is a spellbinding performance as the villain by the marvelous actor, Michael Shannon. Let’s say you are in a patient mood. As a hunter, you might wait in a blind for hours to get a look at a particular bird. If so, rent The Shape of Water and watch it at home and enjoy the transcendent acting by the great Shannon.
Shannon has yet to find a role suitable for his immense talent. In Water he plays a well-worn villainous type and proceeds to play it perhaps as well as anyone in memory has played it. Terribly unlikeable as the evil Col. Strickland, security chief at a secret government lab, Shannon dominates every scene in which he appears and eventually dramatizes all by himself a stridently cynical view of American society–Worklife and Homelife both–which is stamping and unforgettable even while it’s clearly an exaggeration. A tour de force by Shannon. A movie within a movie, directed and acted by Shannon.
As to del Toro’s tour de farce: The time is 1962; the place is Baltimore and a dank and shabby Cold War secret government lab in which a humanoid amphibian (“Amphibian Man”) is being studied, the creature a strapping hunk (think of King Kong when he’s reached the point you and Faye Wray feel sorry for him and know too that del Toro says he was inspired to create Amphibian Man by the hero of the 1950s horror movie, Creature from the Black Lagoon) who is an innocent creature Strickland pulled from South American waters deep in the jungle. Amphibian Man is being studied as possibly giving America an advantage in the Space Race (?), but (horrors) we learn he is being held finally to undergo vivisection at the hands of Evil Defense and National Security types, notably the terrible Col. Strickland. Three saintly if somewhat hapless Little People conspire to kidnap Amphibian Man and keep him alive in a bathtub. One of these good souls is a mute young woman who falls for Amphibian Man, has sex with him (no, not shown), and, well, there are some Soviet spies trying also to kidnap Amphibian Man but they are bumblers and, well, it all works out in the end when Strickland kills practically everyone but is killed by Amphibian Man who then jumps into the water on the Baltimore waterfront carrying the dead body of the mute heroine (Strickland guilty again) who saved Amphibian Man in her bathtub and, lo and behold, Amphibian Man, it turns out, can heal humans who have deadly wounds and transform them into fellow undersea creatures, with gills and all, and so he and the nice woman, resurrected (?), swim off into not the sunset but a kind of luminous underwater distance.
Maybe check your email when Shannon isn’t on screen.