Basically, Guillermo del Toro made a Tim Burton film, down to the kitschy nostalgia and the alienated misfits sticking it to bourgeois society. Only here's the difference. Burton empathizes with alienation from within bourgeois society. To put it more plainly, he deals with alienated whites. Del Toro gives us a cast of outsiders for whom alienation isn't simply a lifestyle choice: a mute, a gay man, a black woman and a gill-man. I suppose you can throw in the sympathetic Russia spy, too, since he's shown to be a better, more compassionate man than his KGB masters. Compassion apparently missing among the powerful puts all these characters on the same side. Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor can sometimes get heavy-handed about this. The gay man (Richard Jenkins), a commercial artist, is initially unwilling to help his mute neighbor (Sally Hawkins, this generation's Shelley Duvall) in her mad scheme to free the gill-man (Doug Jones) from government captivity. But after getting harshly rejected by the pie-shop clerk he'd been crushing on, and seeing him throw a black couple out of the place, the artist is all in. There's a solidarity of otherness here somewhat different from whatever solidarity of alienation exists in Burton's worlds, and perhaps a more eager embrace of the happy ending than Burton often could countenance. But let's say that if Burton were going to remake Splash, but del Toro inherited the project, The Shape of Water is quite close to what you'd probably get.
The film's true origin, we've been told, is the strange pang of romance little Guillermo felt when he saw the Creature from the Black Lagoon stalking Julia Adams underwater. The object of Shape of Water is to milk whatever romantic potential exists between a relatively homely, socially handicapped female and an amphibian man who is said to be "beautiful," though he's a typical del Toro critter, and has conveniently godlike powers of healing. It helps that Elisa, the mute, has an aquatic fetish -- she masturbates in her bathtub and later recklessly floods her bathroom so she and the gill-man can get it on outside the tub's cramped confines -- that may date back to when she was found, Moses-like, in the water as a babe. Compassion forms the core of their romance; she, merely a cleaning lady at the Occam research facility ("The Simplest Explanation is the Best!"), seems to be the only person in the building really interested in communicating with the captive creature, offering it hard-boiled eggs while teaching it the sign for "egg." She shares her music collection with the creature -- this Sixties-set film admirably eschews the usual oldies in favor of the Forties music of the artist's beloved Fox musicals and the stuff Elisa presumably grew up on -- and gains self-esteem as she teaches another non-verbal being to communicate. However intelligent the gill-man might be, he will not see Elisa as "incomplete" because she can't talk. Like with plague-muted little Luna in War for the Planet of the Apes, there's an implication that doing without speech allows for more pure, guileless, communication.
The other side of that coin is the preference for silence during sex expressed by the creature's chief captor, Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon), who puts his maimed, bleeding hand over his wife's mouth to shut her up during intercourse. Strickland in some ways is more like a Burton protagonist in that he feels increasing alienation from his family's bland bourgeois existence ("Bonanza is much too violent!") He tries to buck the consumer fad for the color green -- the artist is ordered to recolor the Jell-O in his spec painting, for instance -- resisting the sales pitch for a green Cadillac until the salesman assures him that the color is actually teal. For whatever reason, his alienation takes oppressive, domineering form, with his cattle prod a surrogate phallus, perhaps because, as a general tells him, the military is the cruel face his society shows the outside world, while denying violence in its own midst; see also the artist's reluctance to watch news footage of the Birmingham police dogs attacking civil-rights protesters. Strickland's most obviously a control freak, refusing to accept the loss of two fingers at the gill-man's hands until the regrafted digits begin to rot and stink on him. But there's also a self-destructive streak that leads him to see himself as a Samson willing to destroy himself in order to take all his enemies down with him. Inevitably, when other characters are good guys simply by virtue of their otherness (see also Elisa's workplace protector, played by Octavia Spencer), Strickland ends up the most intriguing character, if also a tailor-made Michael Shannon villain.
The Shape of Water is an even weirder film than the ads and trailers let on, perhaps because even a snippet of Elisa's Rogers-Astaire fantasy dance with the gill-man might have been a too-Burtonesque deal-breaker for some prospective viewers. It's really more fairy-tale than horror film, or at least more of a fairy tale, in the "happily ever after" sense, than any previous del Toro film. It's a lovely looking film with well-dressed locations and sets shot by Dan Laustsen. The soundtrack is an intriguing mix of Forties tunes and an Alexander Desplat score that veers between Danny Elfman and Bernard Herrmann with some gallic touches of the composer's own. The film's on shakiest ground in imagining the interior life of the gill-man. He sometimes seems like a too-good-to-be-true innocent, but then del Toro has it kill and eat one of the artist's housecats. But if that was to remind us that the gill-man is a monster, the film promptly reverses that impression by having the creature apologize to the artist, after his fashion, and in the process heal both the scratches he inflicted on the artist's arm and his pattern baldness. If a last-supper scene where the gill-man's signing skills don't seem to have progressed past "egg" suggests that there's an inherent limit to his communication skills, he later manages to sign his desire that Elisa return to the sea with him. A stricken Strickland concludes that the gill-man really is a god -- he was worshiped as such in the land where the colonel found him -- but whether we're really meant to see him that way, or simply as a fairy-tale creature, is ultimately unclear. Each viewer can draw his or her own conclusion, but I think Shape of Water will succeed in getting most audiences to buy into Elisa's fantasy and del Toro's, if not necessarily his view of a time when America, as far as most people were concerned, was still great.