Every frame of The Shape of Water seems to live and breathe with a magic that’s only possible on screen. Whether it’s the heavily saturated and precisely chosen color scheme, or the gritty, grimy feel of every location, the movie is full to bursting with visual inventiveness. It’s also very full of ideas. This is a fable about our not so distant past, and it also has something to tell us about our present.
Set in early 1960s Baltimore, Water takes place almost exclusively in two locations. One is a top-secret government laboratory, the other is the apartment of our hero, the mute Elisa Esposito. Elisa is a janitor working the night shift at the lab. The Cold Warrior scientists and military personnel working there have a new project. It’s a creature the U.S. military discovered in a river in South America. They refer to this creature, which looks like a hybrid of amphibian and human, as “the asset.”
The man who captured it, Col. Richard Strickland, has discovered it can breathe both under water and on land. The government hopes to unlock the secrets of the asset’s anatomy in an effort to help American astronauts survive in orbit, which would win the Space Race. When Elisa forms a special bond with the creature, she becomes determined to rescue it from its brutal treatment at the hands of its captors, Col. Strickland chief among them.
I would be hard-pressed to choose one dominant theme around which The Shape of Water is structured. Visionary director Guillermo del Toro and his co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor manage to artfully incorporate a half-dozen different social and political stances into the film. Del Toro is an outspoken leftist, and like the villains in his previous films Hellboy (Nazis), and Pan’s Labyrinth (Francoists), the antagonists here are brutal authoritarians. The fact that they consider themselves God-fearing, red-blooded Americans complicates the thematic myth on which the United States is based. A critic more insightful than myself has commented that if this film had been made in the 1950s, Col. Strickland – who, in this version, delights in torturing the Amphibian Man – would have been the unquestioned hero.
Incisive film and cultural critic Peter Biskind actually wrote an entire book on this phenomenon. In Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, he decodes the political stances contained in dozens of films from the Cold War era. I can’t do his tireless work justice here, but one idea in particular relates to The Shape of Water. Biskind makes the argument that in sci-fi movies of the 50s, the ones where the American Dream is under siege by giant bugs or marauding Martians, we can decode the political stance of the movie by observing who is in charge, and who has the answers.
In the right-wing, authoritarian leaning movies, the cops and military men always save the day. They unlock the secret to defeating the menace that threatens peaceful American idyll, while egg-head scientists bicker endlessly about the best course of action. In the left-wing, progressive films, it’s just the opposite. Scientists and scholars work together to form a plan that will bring about harmony with the film’s threat, while the government and military try to solve everything through brute force, usually with disastrous results.
Based on how I’ve described Strickland alone, it’s not hard to guess on what side The Shape of Water falls. Our hero, Elisa, isn’t a scientist – although she gets plenty of help from one – but she does personify traits that any proud leftist would champion. She’s empathetic towards the powerless. She’s contemplative, yet impassioned. She also allies herself with people whom Strickland considers “the other.”
Her next-door neighbor, Giles, is an advertising artist, and a closeted gay man. Her coworker and friend, Zelda, is a black woman whom society has forced even more onto the fringes than Elisa herself. The film tackles the struggles of all these people to some degree. There is a heart-breaking arc included for Giles. Meanwhile, Zelda must deal with working a full-time job, only to go home and tend the house because her husband refuses to lift a finger.
The Shape of Water also tackles female desire, because the picture is, at its heart, a love story, albeit a very unconventional one. Elisa can’t speak – her vocal cords were damaged as an infant – but she is more articulate than her love interest, the Amphibian Man. Therefore, we see the budding romance from her perspective, and it’s a liberating experience. Del Toro is mature enough of a director that he can make Elisa a sexual being, and explore her desires, without it ever feeling exploitative or lecherous.
He contrasts scenes in which Elisa pleasures herself, which come across as more playful than erotic, with a sex scene between Strickland and his wife, which conforms to a more traditional ‘50s ideal of sex. This scene also eschews eroticism, but it’s because del Toro is poking fun at the idea of missionary style, male-domination type sex. As Strickland (you’ll have to pardon the expression, but there’s just no other way to put it) jackhammers away at his wife, he covers her mouth as she tries to speak. Straight, white-picket-fence sex of the ‘50s could only accommodate one desire, and it was always that of the man.
Guillermo del Toro is a clever and mischievous artist. All of this political and social commentary is wrapped around a movie where he riffs on one of the most famous Universal Monsters of the 50s era. The Amphibian Man bares a striking resemblance to the title monster from 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, with the visual design updated for the times. There is undoubted digital trickery involved – Amphibian Man’s blinking is a highlight of this – but del Toro uses mostly practical effects to give his creature a presence on screen. Frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones was in a suit every day he was on set, which gives Amphibian Man a weight he might not otherwise have had.
Del Toro’s greatest achievement, his masterpiece, is still 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth. The Shape of Water isn’t far behind it, though. With this movie, the director has proven he is still one of the most inventive storytellers of his generation. His dark fantasies are overflowing, not just with sumptuous visual flourishes, but with ideas.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- The Shape of Water is the full package. It's entertaining, yet it's packed with ideas that make you think long after the movie ends. It's also beautifully shot and acted.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- In trying to craft a somewhat concise review that flowed well, I left a lot on the table. There is so much I simply didn't get to. The top one is probably the performances. Sally Hawkins as Elisa is perfection. She has such a unique look, and she meets the challenge of not having any dialog exceptionally well. Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer do phenomenal things with what are supporting parts. Jenkins in particular proves that less is more, and speaks volumes with the smallest of facial expressions and movements. Michael Shannon plays Col. Strickland in a big, arch way that only he can. It gets away from him a little late in the film, but on the whole, it's a great performance.
- Also late in the film is a fantasy sequence that runs the risk of becoming silly, just because of the circumstances. For me, it did cross over into silliness, but only slightly. It was a bold choice, and I give it credit for that.
- Character actor Michael Stuhlbarg, who appears in three of the most critically praised movies of 2017, is excellent as one of the scientists working at the lab. His character, and his motivations, are complex and complicated, especially considering our current political climate.
- Doug Jones' performance as the Amphibian Man is magnificent. He was the perfect pick to embody this new take on a classic monster. I am tempted to fall down a rabbit hole of Creature from the Black Lagoon movies because of The Shape of Water.
- I could write a whole other review about Strickland's racism and sexism. It manifests in how he behaves and talks in front of women versus how he behaves and talks when only men are around (especially those he doesn't see as "other").
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- There was lots of mumbling and some chatting from a couple a few seats down, but otherwise, it was a fairly quiet crowd, with outbursts of reaction to things happening on screen.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Speaking of Michael Stuhlbarg, one of those other movies I was referencing above was Call Me by Your Name, an indie hit starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer. Next week, I'll be taking a look at that coming of age love story.