Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Genre: Fantasy, Drama
With vampires, werewolves, billionaires so sociopathic that they might as well be inhuman monsters, and now fish men, one has to wonder if human women are becoming dissatisfied with their own species…
Violence/Scary Images: Stabbing, bleeding. Severed fingers. Lots of blood. Bloody hand print. Bloody wounds. Attacking creature with a cattle prod. Guns/shooting. Car crash. Creature eats cat; bleeding, headless cat shown. A character rages. A jump scare. Reattached fingers rotting/character rips them off. Throat slashing. Some hitting/bashing with objects.
Language/Crude Humor: Several uses of profane and obscene language, as well as explicit sexual language.
Sexual Content: Full-frontal female nudity. Woman masturbates in the bathtub. A married couple has sex; thrusting and a naked male bottom are shown. Woman and creature naked in a tub together. A man touches a naked breast. Flirting. Innuendo.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Several minor/supporting characters smoke. A character with severed fingers swallows handfuls of pain pills.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: A simple-minded approach to race and class relations. Sadistic behavior on both sides of the conflict, with the sadistic behavior of the protagonists, groundlessly being treated as justifiable.
Though the characters are brave and sympathetic, they also engage in certain amounts of deception and sometimes violence to do the right thing. While their intentions are admirable, their actions often aren’t. Brief cultural slander.
Positive Content: The movie’s love story may shock some viewers, but at its heart, this is a story about sympathy, compassion, and love. It’s about looking past physical differences and finding the thing that’s true. And it’s about risking your own safety to protect the rights of others who may seem different.
It is the ambition of many filmmakers to be in the position of an indispensable auteur like Guillermo del Toro. His effortless capacity to flit between hard-selling popcorn crowd fare like Pacific Rim, high-minded multi-dimensional art house productions like Pan’s Labyrinth, and even humble kid-friendly Saturday Morning Cartoon exercises like DreamWorks’ Trollhunters however he pleases is enviable to say the least. That he almost never loses his edge in any of the variant productions he undertakes is emblematic of not only his commitment to excellence in all he does, but also his insight in being able to see the opportunity for excellence in a wide variety of genres, demographics, and approaches.
At times, I find his ambitions to be misplaced and failing to offer a full narrative experience when his taste for the aesthetic overrides the effectiveness of the story. This first became clear to me in Crimson Peak, a visually stunning work of costume and production design that ultimately amounted to a ghost story with very little in the way of a story about ghosts. Of course, he also knows how to bring out the best in his performers regardless of whether or not the film is a success on balance. He’s also made his love of a dark and mature take on fairy tale tropes and make-believe monsters perfectly evident in virtually all of his work, even in narratives where one would think such things to be out of place.
The Shape of Water is one such film of a sort that boldly encapsulates an unconventional cornucopia of settings, tropes, and ideas into a believably cohesive whole. While a story set against the backdrop of the early 60s Cold War era (with all the prerequisite depictions of racism and sexism to boot) might be an odd place to put an unconventionally adult romance fairy tale, del Toro brings his unique vision and execution to the table to subtly convince us that what we’re seeing is a lot more believable than we may think upon the first impression. What seems to be lacking here is not so much any unique visual flairs as some other reviewers have stated. Rather, what is missing is anything exceptional or even that challenging in what are largely very one-dimensional characters and plotlines.
We are introduced to Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a timid-looking woman who suffered an injury to her neck as an infant that left her mute for life. She makes ends meet by working as a janitor at a secure government research facility with her fellow custodian and friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) operating as her sign language translator and voice of sassy reason in a world of patriarchal madness. This madness is primarily manifested in Michael Shannon’s Colonel Richard Strickland, who exhumes both abusive authoritarianism and chaotic counterproductive insecurities in the same strokes.
At home, Elisa entertains herself with a humble routine of hard-boiling eggs, setting a timer for the eggs, and performing onanism in a bathtub in sync with the egg timer. She also takes time to enjoy various TV programs with her roommate Giles (Richard Jenkins), a commercial artist with closeted same-sex attractions, with most of those programs, unsurprisingly consisting largely of classic musicals. While it’s not the best situation she could envision, Elisa largely seems satisfied with her lot in life.
A wrench is thrown into the system when a new “asset” is brought into the facility. This unnamed creature is a large amphibious subaquatic humanoid that was captured from some part in the Amazon where, we are told, he was worshipped as a god. Since it is a strange alien creature that is captured and held under the custody of Strickland, a man who seems to inadvertently subjugate people with a look, it’s pretty clear how famously the creature (Doug Jones) will get along with the others. To drive the point home, Strickland carries himself as though tormenting the creature with a cattle prod is his entire raison d’être, even though such treatment elicits nothing of use to him or his organization.
Elisa is fascinated by this asset that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. She decides to break the ice by sneaking into his chambers where he is chained within a large fish tank and periodically tortured by Strickland for no other reason but because del Toro didn’t think Shannon looked menacing enough as is. Elisa makes an offering of her boiled eggs to the asset and teaches him sign language in order to establish a means of communication. I’m pretty sure we’ve all seen this story before, and there’s nothing really wrong with that.
Much of del Toro’s finest work is done by taking widely known and expected tropes of popular filmmaking and putting a unique spin to it that elevates the work to the level of something distinctly identifiable if not sublime. Here, I’m not too sure what del Toro is trying to do. At first, I thought he was giving something like an unofficial origin story to Hellboy’s Abe Sapien. Later, I construed it was more akin to Free Willy, a childhood favorite of mine. The plot centers on an odd motley crew of unwanted outcasts working menial jobs at a corporate facility banding together to transport and liberate a captured underwater creature through vehicular means to the animal’s natural habitat while dodging the proverbial slings and arrows of the self-interested antagonists running the facility. The key difference is that I’m sure the relationship between Jesse and Willy was a bit more platonic than what’s on offer here.
Through my research into this film, I was appalled but not terribly surprised to find that available on Amazon.com is an entire subgenre of erotic fiction focused on women having sexual encounters with Bigfoot. Yes, BIGFOOT. The titles alone are enough to make me cringe, and I won’t reproduce them here. Funny how those works will never receive any accolades but when a highly respected film professional like del Toro does virtually the same kind of tale glibly masquerading as high-minded retrospective sociopolitical commentary, it becomes one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year and pretty much guaranteed to sweep up a few nominations at the Academy Awards.
That’s right, dear reader. It wasn’t enough for Elisa and the asset to simply share an intimate bond between two sentient creatures capable of rational thought and empathy. When Elisa is sitting secretly in the asset’s chamber sharing boiled eggs and slow music on a portable turntable, something truly touching takes place for a while. It was C.S. Lewis who indicated that this particular kind of love– affection–is the one kind of love that seems to transcend all barriers comfortably–even barriers between species. Every story about a boy and his dog (even ones where the dog is not actually a dog such as Mighty Joe Young or How to Train Your Dragon) is a testimony to this. The fatal error is where the relationship moves from aficionado to eros. And that is the fatal error present in The Shape of Water.
It is an error so deadly that the entire pathos of the ensemble is damaged by refocusing our vision on what exactly is motivating these otherwise likable outcasts. I was willing to pass off Elisa’s daily masturbation ritual as just a character gimmick, but when it comes to pass that her ultimate intentions in her relationship with the asset were more carnal than I thought at first, not only did my respect for her character plummet, I began to see the other characters’ motivations to be more unsavory as well.
Giles seems to rest his sense of accomplishment in his romantic interest with the young male waiter at the local pie-and-coffee diner. This ultimately doesn’t pan out, and this is treated as a great loss by the film. Even Spencer’s Zelda is ultimately defined by her sexually-deadened relationship with a husband who hardly breathes a word to her anymore. Rather than giving us an array of characters who have hang-ups and insecurities on a wide idiosyncratic span of issues, the movie at heart seems to suggest that everyone just needs to get laid in whatever twisted way they please in order to feel better about themselves.
There is one exception, found in the winsome character of Robert/Dmitri Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg effecting as ever), a Soviet spy who has a crisis of conscience about his superiors demanding that he euthanize the asset rather than allow the Americans to successfully learn anything useful from the asset’s physiology. Sadly, he’s woefully underwritten and underused, ultimately exiting the drama in a manner not very fitting with his self-motivated gumption. Aside from that, all other characters really seem to have on the top of their agenda the primal satisfaction of four bare legs in a bed/bathtub/whatever.
I know we’re being asked to celebrate Elisa’s “sexual liberation” with her marine beau, but how can anyone rightfully take it seriously when, after first having sexually consummate relations with the asset, she comes to work grinning like some smitten schoolgirl who just lost her virginity to her crush? And of course, even her good friend Zelda is so “accepting”, “tolerant”, and “open-minded” that she doesn’t even deign to consider the possible health risks involved in Elisa engaging in coitus with a member of an amphibious non-human species that couldn’t even survive on land. Not even a “what would the kids look like?” type question comes to mind. Instead, we get an admittedly clever bit of hand pantomime from Elisa describing how the asset’s genitalia function. Clever, but it still does nothing in the way of justifying the quasi-bestiality.
Another poignant moment of physical intimacy is when Elisa deliberately floods the bathroom where she was sheltering the asset in order to give her and her partner more room to play. The collateral damage done to the bathroom, the theater sitting beneath the apartment, and the building as a whole is simply dismissed as though the utter destruction of house and home would be worth it if only Elisa and the asset are able to enjoy themselves for a few moments in sexual bliss. All else pales in comparison to what Elisa wants. Don’t expect the film to concede that Elisa and Strickland may not be so different in this regard, dear reader. Only the consequences of those who are in service to the racist and sexist white male patriarchy are deserving of our consternation.
If that’s not enough, the movie makes very little of its nature as a work of imaginative fantasy. In del Toro’s own Pan’s Labyrinth (which I personally consider to be his finest work), we were given a fantasy setting bursting to the seams with imaginative details that can be discovered and rediscovered through multiple viewings. Effective fantasy rewards the observant. In The Shape of Water, we are denied the opportunity as viewers to find out much of anything ourselves. Elisa’s daily habit of masturbating in her tub to the pace of a timer is blatantly connected early on through an egg motif to the amphibious asset.
One of Strickland’s quirks is that he tends to chew a certain hard candy when in the process of interrogating people. Instead of allowing us to ponder what that could mean, del Toro has his character stop right in the middle of a scene to give a monologue on why he chews that certain hard candy when in the process of interrogating people. Later on, Zelda’s middle name of “Delilah” is evoked so that Strickland may stretch the writing to its breaking point in order to draw parallels to the biblical tale of Samson. Most disappointing of all, a touching visual connection between the scars on Elisa’s neck and the asset’s gills is candidly robbed of its charm and mystery, instead of being made a verbatim match in the climax of the film. Odd how such an ostensibly imaginative film leaves so little to the imagination.
Don’t even get me started on what a cartoonishly wicked antagonist Shannon’s Strickland winds up being. Virtually every word out of his mouth and every action he takes is wrong all the way through. He has no redeeming qualities to him whatsoever. At certain points, parts of his body begin to literally turn black and rot off of him. Even at home with his wife and kids, he acts more like the hollow shell of a human being going through the motions of a man without any real personal involvement. Strangely, he’s very emotionally involved on the job, as he always seems to be in a state of alarm. Del Toro didn’t even allow the opportunity for Strickland (a clearly allegorical moniker) to commit lecherous sexual harassment and intimidation against Elisa for no clear reason to go to waste.
This is just the kind of work that I know is beneath del Toro’s level of sophistication. If someone like Michael Bay or Brett Ratner were to pull something like this off, I’d allow myself to revel in its accomplishments. The performances from all are stellar. Hawkins may not be what anyone would consider to be a conventionally attractive actress, but she was at least very easy to like early on with how smooth but powerful her embodiment of a woman forced into silence through violence against her body is (no ambiguous feminist undertones there). Aside from frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones, Stuhlbarg gives the performance that had the greatest success in winning me over. If only he had more to do with the role.
And yes, the film is a visual splendor. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen somehow manages to use blues and greens in pretty much every scintillating way in which they could be used. The effectively rustic appeal of the whole experience is palpable and almost worth the price of admission. But good looks aren’t enough to save what is largely nothing more than a one-dimensional exercise in fantasy filmmaking that’s not only subpar in with it offers its viewers, but also grossly far astray in its position on its heroes’ actions and motivations. Del Toro once stated in an interview that he regards himself as being “a little too liberal” in his political views. God only knows if this tongue-and-cheek self-awareness will manifest into a better sense of nuance the next time around.