[***Possible Spoiler Warning: Some heavy hints/suggestive information about the movie’s outcome later in the review. Please read at your own discretion.***]
While watching the very enjoyable film THE SHAPE OF WATER, I thought of the 1954 3-D classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. I heard from someone that the filmmaker Guillermo del Toro meant for his latest production to be a sort of sequel to that much older movie. In any case, the acting by the whole cast was stellar, the sets and often dim-filtered lighting (or whatever the proper term is for the technique used) intriguingly atmospheric, the script effectively suspenseful and deeply touching. The creature was amazing and often endearing. His large, nictitating membraned eyes alone were fascinating. Great symbolism abounded.
I was impressed with Michael Shannon’s portrayal of Colonel Richard Strickland, the villain, a man who appears to have it all in 1962 America: a decent-paying government job, a pretty, attentive wife, two well-behaved children, a house in the suburbs, and a brand new Cadillac. His role of a menacing, cattle-prod wielding security officer charged with keeping the captured creature contained and docile embodied hyper-masculinity turned monstrous. I felt like I was watching a close associate of Trump’s whenever he was on-screen. Strickland’s two re-attached fingers slowly turning gangrenous from an unsuccessful surgery after a fight with the creature represent decay of these old social paradigms struggling to hold on with keeping centrally relevant and powerful to this day: authoritarian masculinity relying on violence and domination over women, non-whites, foreigners, anyone deemed non-conforming, and nature; materialism; stoicism; Judeo-Christian thought as the sole valid religion; and probably other monoliths that I can’t think of at the moment. On more than one occasion, Strickland makes it a point to menacingly share his knowledge about Old Testament passages to the protagonists Elisa and Zelda. These are moments of preaching “truth” for him, the way things came to be through the workings of a harsh God and should always rightfully remain, to be righted back if anyone dares to disobey. Strickland is on a mission to preserve the status quo at all costs, the creature’s very existence a threat to so much of that and, hence, Strickland’s own relevance as he has defined himself.
It is clear that Strickland and his direct superior, military General Hoyt (Nick Searcy), represent the old patriarchy, these days an easy and still-valid target of villainy for films and theater alike. And while some may find such bluntness in this screenplay to be overly-coarse, condescendingly didactic and moralistic, and perhaps even unoriginal, I did not find any of this to be the case at all. Rather, I found the film to be accurately, yet playfully, ethical and entertaining, not to mention refreshing and purposefully theatrical in a high camp style way, like an old spy or science fiction movie, only with more dimensionality given to the characters, conveyed in a world with a solid, updated morality-minded message, or set of messages. This movie strives to show that love transcends all appearances, including perceived, consensus-reality social order. Do what you wish with another, whatever or whoever this fully sentient, consenting “other” may be, as long as you harm no-one, including yourself. Fear and hate lead nowhere, except to a smaller life lived and a quicker death. Undoubtedly, viewers will find additional messages in this film, as did I.
The leading woman character, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), drew me in quickly, her muteness and unusual body markings suggesting mysterious origins. She is clearly “other” or “different,” as are her aging gay neighbor (a struggling commercial artist named Giles, tenderly and sympathetically portrayed by Richard Jenkins), and close friend and African American co-worker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). Along with Ms. Esposito’s European landlord, who owns a movie theater downstairs which happens to be showing a 1960 film (THE STORY OF RUTH) about a female in Biblical times, these two make up a surrogate family for Elisa, a cleaning woman employed at a government lab.
Zelda is Elisa’s connection to the outside world, working closely with her as another cleaning woman at the lab, a seemingly endless row of rooms connected by a long, almost cave-like corridor. In this subterranean-looking facility, the two keep each other company. Zelda talks steadily, mainly about her often cranky, lazy husband, while Elisa listen’s and signs with her hands, which Zelda understands. They stave off loneliness together, successfully navigating their oppressive jobs through friendship, which becomes crucial when having to deal with Strickland’s scrutiny and increasingly desperate ruthlessness.
Elisa’s quiet passion and sexuality come through in assorted ways, such as her masturbating in the bathtub as part of her morning routine. She daydreams on the bus to work and watches old movies on TV with her cat-loving neighbor Giles, who, like Zelda, understands her sign language. Sexually frustrated and lonely, they both long for a lover. Giles is harshly rebuffed by a younger man who runs a nearby diner franchise. Elisa has undoubtedly been continuously ignored or largely unseen by men, due to her muteness, social avoidance out of practical safety as a single woman, and unconventional looks. Her features tend a bit toward equine yet sensual, particularly because of sultry, ponderous eyes and a hint of mischief in her smile.
Given Elisa’s outcast status and natural openness to new experiences beyond her heavily routinized existence, it is no wonder that she befriends the creature. She comes upon him while cleaning the lab room he is wheeled into from inside his cage, a large glass and metal tank of water. Her intrigue with this scaly humanoid native to the Amazon River is believable, like that of a young child coming upon a new person or animal they simply wish to observe and get to know.
Rounding out this cast of misfits is Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, charged with supervising the study of the creature while also spying for Russia. His lonely struggle to integrate his conflicting roles of compassionate scientist and secret agent is palpably conveyed, such as through sad, tense facial expressions and in a dim, gloomy bachelor pad where he briefly hosts his ruthless, suspicious Soviet superiors, away from his work of protecting the creature from being further harmed or killed by Strickland, if not first by them on the “other side.” Hoffstetler’s moral and existential dilemmas that accompany his attempts to transcend loyalty to a particular government while working for the “enemy,” the impersonal side of science and, finally, loneliness are touching and ultimately the most wrenching to watch. As a distrusted and frowned upon foreigner and intellectual, he comes around to relating to the creature as an outcast like him. Specifically, Hoffstetler’s capacity for empathy deepens when he spies Elisa successfully communing with the creature in her non-verbal ways.
A love triangle of sorts develops between Strickland, Elisa, and the creature. Strickland lusts after Elisa, who is repulsed by his grandiosity, crassness, and cruelty. He finds her silence and child-like sensuality irresistible. Elisa has someone else in mind for her attentions. The creature begins to reciprocate them when she starts to leave him boiled eggs at the edge of a pool into which he is chained but can swim about. She plays romantic show tunes for him on a portable record player and he quickly learns the words for “egg” and “music” in sign language.
Aside from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, I can’t recall such an effective inversion of a romantic leading male character on screen as the creature is in THE SHAPE OF WATER. Only, unlike the Beast, the creature is not a “cursed” human, awaiting transformation back to his “true, original nature.” His “beastliness” comes across as sufficiently human and loving just as he is. This is largely because of the talented actor Doug Jones, who surely spent many hours being placed into such an incredible costume and learning to move around in a natural way while wearing it. The creature’s powers of regeneration and how he uses them make him both deific and likable. Giles wants him around to help him grow more hair back on his balding head. The amphibious being exhibits a few moments of animal savagery to remind the audience that he is indeed a being of the wild. But, then we see the creature change his behavior, become more gentle, indicating a capacity to learn and grow, like a human.
Elisa has found a caring partner, though one who cannot stay alive outside of water for long. Their coupledom seems doomed from the start, but is it? Elisa is so taken with the creature that she incorporates him into a fantasy of a black-and-white movie musical number, in which she dances with him across a big stage, a la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, spliced in or superimposed somehow with CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON– very imaginative, touching, and humorously outrageous all at once. Like the creature, she does not feel part of this dry world of people and routines. She is of the more wet world, that of imagination and the unconscious bubbling up to consciousness wherever and whenever it can. Sometimes this means diving down into the wetness to resurface with more sense of aliveness, an added awareness, forever changed. And Elisa does this both figuratively and literally in the film, her prescient dream-life of being underwater a beautiful foreshadowing.
Psychological and sociological implications abounded in this allegory of a film, channeled through an often 1950’s and early ’60’s aesthetic inspired by old Hollywood movies, TV shows, and Cold War paranoia. I have touched upon some of the symbolism and implications here, but one must actually see THE SHAPE OF WATER for oneself to glean all the meanings to be found in this visually colorful, sensual, romantic, and often quirky piece of cinema, a must-see.