The Shape of Water (2017)
Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro
Produced by Guillermo del Toro, J. Miles Dale
Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Music by Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography by Dan Laustsen
Edited by Sidney Wolinsky
Production design by Paul D. Austerberry
Art Direction by Nigel Churcher
Set Decoration by Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau
Annapolis Bow Tie Harbor 9 (2:03)
Like Guillermo del Toro, I was too young to have seen the original release of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), but I imagine that something of the magic those audiences felt translated to the emotions I experienced watching The Shape of Water, a film obviously influenced by the Jack Arnold monster/horror classic. Arnold touches on the concept of “otherness” in the 1954 original, but del Toro – with the advantage of having more freedom to explore such themes in 2017 – takes the viewer on a journey not just through the “otherness” of a human/monster relationship, but other journeys that venture out to far-reaching areas of – and perhaps beyond – humanity.
The “other” in this case is a sea creature captured in South America by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), an aggressive, get-it-done military commander in charge of a scientific team studying the being Strickland calls the “Asset.” Firmly set in the Cold War in 1962 Baltimore, the “Asset” offers interesting possibilities as a potential weapon to be used against the Soviets. It’s Strickland’s job to unlock the answers to what makes the creature tick. It takes about five seconds for us to understand who Strickland is: a sadistic, threatening presence, one willing to go so far as to carry (and use) a cattle prod, just in case you somehow don’t believe his verbal threats. If he wore a spandex costume, he’d probably feel right at home as a villain in a superhero blockbuster, but both Shannon and the part thankfully contain far greater depth.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as janitors at the research facility where the creature (hereafter referred to as the Amphibian Man) is being held. Elisa is mute, communicating through sign language to those who care enough to learn it, like Zelda. Frequently finding herself alone cleaning the area that houses the Amphibian Man, Elisa discovers she’s able to communicate with the creature through the sharing of food (hardboiled eggs), music (Benny Goodman records) and, yes, sign language. Credit del Toro with making this well-traveled road of a human communicating with the “other” seem fresh, vibrant, and full of wonder. Also credit Doug Jones who plays the Amphibian Man, and the costume’s designers Shane Mahan and Mike Hill for making – with a minimum of CGI that you probably won’t even notice – the creature seem as real as the seat you’re sitting in.
Elisa’s longing for companionship and intimacy is made clear early in the film. Again, we’ve seen this before; anyone old enough to have viewed E.T. will understand it: Hawkins conveys a childlike sense of wonder in approaching the Amphibian Man while still yearning for a level of mature sharing, something she’s been unable to realize up to this point, whether with her friend/co-worker Zelda or Giles (Richard Jenkins), the commercial illustrator who lives in the same apartment building as Elisa.
As she engages with the Amphibian Man, we not only enjoy the story on its own terms, we also allow this relationship with the “other” to symbolize different aspects of our own world: interracial, intercultural, same sex, and many others, all worth exploring and discussing. Yet the discovery of the Amphibian Man and the possibilities of a relationship with him opens wider our own doors as well as the doors of the universe itself. The Shape of Water goes far beyond exploring the “other” in terms of individuals and groups of individuals, suggesting the yearning for understanding the entirety of creation and how we have handled (or more accurately mishandled) it. The film also suggests that instead of exploring the entire landscape of creation, we’ve been content to confine ourselves to a muddy corner in the back yard. I also look at this in terms of the exploration of God and knowing Him fully. (I understand that not everyone reading this review will have the same viewpoint. Feel free to either skip this part or adapt it to whatever or whomever you like.)
Elisa’s longing to know and be known suggests that up until meeting the Amphibian Man, she hasn’t found what she’s been seeking. All her other relationships and pursuits prior to this have been poor substitutes. When she finds a connection with the Amphibian Man – not only that she can communicate with him, but also that he can communicate with her – we see the awakening recognition on her face. If we’re honest with ourselves, that recognition is something we all ache for. I applaud Hawkins for finding such moments in her performance. As she begins to explore the elements of the Amphibian Man’s world that she doesn’t fully understand, she takes several risks and I found myself asking which risks I would (and perhaps should) take in my own explorations. (For one of those risks explored in the film, see the SPOILERS section below.) Elisa goes beyond a simple longing for understanding, acceptance and love. She is literally ready to go to the next level, wherever that might be. Her courage, faith and commitment know no limits. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself examining your own limitations and fears. And don’t look upon that as a bad thing.
Yet Elisa is not the only person seeking something in the film. In perhaps his finest performance in years, Richard Jenkins plays Giles, a man trying to find his place in the world as both an artist and a gay man attracted to a younger man working in a nearby diner. Who has the greater chance of finding love in 1962: a gay artist with another man or a mute woman with a sea monster?
Strickland is also looking for something. Success. Vindication. Control. His character is more complex as the supervillain alluded to earlier in this review in that he also is answerable to someone else. As much as he’d like to be, he’s not entirely autonomous. Yes, he’s rude, brash, a bully, and way beyond insensitive (referring to the Amphibian Man as an “affront” to the natural order of Strickland’s world) and Shannon could have gone completely over the top with this role (some claim that he did). Yet his limitations and lack of autonomy help hold the character in check, at least somewhat.
Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlberg), one of the scientists assigned to the Amphibian Man project, wants to study the creature even if it can’t be used as a weapon. Hoffstetler is the focus of one of the film’s most interesting subplots, but the character is used primarily as a plot device and not fully developed, depriving us of a character that could’ve been a nicer contrast to Elisa had we seen more of him.
Yet the lack of development of Hoffstetler’s character is not the only crack in the plaster (or leak in the tank, if you will). (SPOILERS) The obvious question is why would Elisa – a lowly janitor, who for all the project managers know, could be tampering with all sorts of equipment – be allowed to frequently clean the locked area housing the Amphibian Man’s tank? (Oops, we must’ve left the door open again! Boy, that woman sure loves cleaning that area, doesn’t she?) Yes, she manipulated one of the security cameras, and that somewhat explains things for a little while, but for how long? Yet del Toro has to get her in there, so I’m pretty forgiving of this problem.
More problematic are the stereotypes del Toro embraces rather than avoids. Elisa – a woman of no words – is matched with co-worker Zelda who is filled with words (perhaps too many), offering several “As you know, Bob” explanations that do nothing other than to establish the fact that Zelda knows how to communicate with (and sometimes for) Elisa. This is, however, a small matter, especially because Spencer is terrific in the role (as always).
Now comes the problem of establishing the era and its ideals/practices without hitting us over the head with them. Yes, we’re in the early 1960s and we understand that the victories of the Civil Rights era haven’t yet occurred, but del Toro gives us an abundance of racial slurs/situations and condescension towards both race and women, more than are necessary. It’s almost as if del Toro is making absolutely sure that we “get it,” that Strickland’s bullying and prejudices against the Amphibian Man are spelled out for us as symbols for racial, sexual and gender prejudices. Del Toro’s intent is admirable, but it’s too much.
Yet these issues are not deal-breakers. Although I just mentioned what I consider some weaknesses of the film, I’d like to ask readers to give their comments (with spoilers) on one of the risks I alluded to earlier in the review. I saw The Shape of Water with a group of about 30 or 40 people, most of whom were probably over the age of 60. When it became clear that we were going to see a sexual relationship between Elisa and the Amphibian Man, several members of the audience gasped. Others laughed. Most sat in silence, probably wondering how this was going to play out. I admire del Toro for including this scene but it’s almost a no-win situation. He’s certainly set up the emotional connection for such a union, but the obvious question of, let’s say, technique (for lack of a better term) comes into play. Yet I think we have to remember that The Shape of Water is primarily a fable/fairy tale (others may argue that it’s not) and that the rules of the fable/fairy tale universe (which are pretty fluid – no pun intended) apply. The scene worked for me but I could see how it might not work for all audiences. Anyway, I’d be very interested in hearing the audience reaction where you saw the film. Please let me know in the comments section below.
The Shape of Water touched me on a spiritual level and as a science fiction/fantasy fan. Like Elisa meeting the Amphibian Man for the first time, I was filled with wonder throughout the entire film. Del Toro’s work always contains spectacular art direction, but the production design here by Paul D. Austerberry and cinematography by Dan Laustsen go far beyond breathtaking. It would be a crime not to see this movie on a big screen in a theater. If you’re already a del Toro fan, it’s a must-see film and if you’re new to the director’s works, it’s not a bad entry point at all. Is it one of the best movies of the year? Yes. Will it be nominated for and win several Oscars? I really couldn’t care less. My measure of the success and greatness of a film is not defined by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, but rather by how it affects me on a personal level. If you want to go solely on that, then hand del Toro some statuettes.
Photos: Fox Searchlight, Cinema Vine