Guillermo del Toro is a singular director with his films existing in a genre of its own (similar to Bong Joon-ho, Martin Scorsese, and PTA). The Shape of Water is the director’s masterpiece fusing all of his obsessions into a work of extreme tenderness surrounded by the grotesque.
Shape of Water’s world is fully realized and lived-in yet dominated by a self-reflexivity, in the sense that it can only happen in a movie and is more influenced by cinema than the real world. Del Toro borrows from vintage Cold War thrillers, old Hollywood musicals, and obviously Creature From the Black Lagoon. It’s not subtle here nor is it trying to be as Elisa’s apartment is on top of a movie theatre. Elisa finds solace in the form of old musicals on her black and white TV but it’s not shallow escapism, it’s salvation.
Sally Hawkins’ portrayal of Elisa Esposito is an achievement in acting: she not only has to play a mute character but also has to convincingly sell her attraction to an amphibious creature. Her disability renders her invisible to the world at large and her only allies, a gay man and a black woman (played with heartbreaking efficiancy by Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins), are also castouts from 50s white picket fence America.
Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland is the face of institutionalized oppression. His entire ethos is grounded in loyalty to a God who he claims looks more like him than Octavia Spencer’s Zelda Fuller. He is driven by control and ownership, placing all value in materialism (a new car specifically). In a sex scene with his wife she tells him he’s getting blood on her (from a finger wound inflicted from Amphibian Man) and he covers her mouth, silencing her moans. Later, he tells Elisa he wants to make her squeal. This isn’t attraction it’s about control and changing the natural.
While Strickland pretends to play God, Amphibian Man actually is; he accepts Elisa’s nature and in the film’s closing frames changes her disability into an asset. What del Toro is getting at is despite America’s tendency to empower the oppressors, there’s a deeper natural order that we will never understand and all the misfits will find their place. That karmic justice might only exist in films but maybe that’s enough.