The Shape of Ick
Movie Review – The Shape of Water
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, and Richard Jenkins
Water fills a darkened living room. Filtered light sparkles. Lush music fills the ears. Chairs and tables float about the room as if in some strange ballet. Above the room a couch is also floating and on it lies a sleeping woman. Such is the surreal and enchanting title sequence of The Shape of Water, the latest film from Dark Fantasy auteur, Guillermo del Toro.
The woman, we soon learn, is named Elisa (Sally Hawkins). Elisa works as a custodian (i.e. janitor!) in a mysterious government facility in 1962 Baltimore with her friend and coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Zelda watches over Elisa and helps her communicate with others. Elisa is mute. One day the two are brought in to work on a special Cold War project by a mysterious government agent, Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). That project it turns out, involves, a mysterious “amphibian man,” a first cousin of sorts to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but sprinkled with neon blue glitter. The creature (Doug Jones) reacts violently to its cruel handlers, even biting off the fingers of Colonel Strickland. But in the sexually and emotionally unfulfilled Elisa, he finds a kindred spirit. Elisa learns of Strickland’s intent to vivisect the creature and devises a plan with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), to help him escape. She takes the creature home and hides him in her bathtub. Soon the two take their interspecies relationship to another level.
The films of Guillermo del Toro elevate their horror and fantasy origins to the level of art. Del Toro is concerned with the magical, both literally and symbolically. His films often feature conflicts between dreamers and the more totalitarian instincts of humanity – fascist dictators, secret government facilities, etc. With his fluid tracking shots and painter’s eye for composition, del Toro has created a readily identifiable trademark while moving effortlessly from pure horror (Cronos), to adult fantasy, (Pan’s Labyrinth), to pulpier commercial fare like the comic book inspired Hellboy series and the giant monsters vs. giant robots silliness of Pacific Rim.
With The Shape of Water, del Toro returns to adult fantasy, essentially reworking the main themes of his masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth. Both films feature a female protagonist. The 12-year-old girl Ofelia, in Pan’s Labyrinth, is now the homely and sexually frustrated Elisa. Each has a love of fantasy. Ofelia clings to the fairy tale books she refuses to grow out of. Elisa lives above a movie theater. Both are lured into a world of magic separate from her own harsh reality. Ofelia is led by the mantis/faerie into the magical world of the Labyrinth. Eliza is drawn into the novel world of the amphibian man. Both characters are pursued by a violent authoritarian male, the evil fascist Captain Vidal of the first film and the psychotic Corporal Strickland of this film. Both protagonists are destroyed by their pursuers, but in death each is redeemed, reborn into their own fantasies. In this, del Toro is commenting on the redemptive nature of fantasy itself.
But although thematically rich and brilliantly staged, the film’s charm is sunk by a basic premise that leaves a sour taste in the mouth. The movie wants to be a sort of modern fairy tale, an adult take on The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast and there are obvious parallels to the latter, but the ick factor is decidedly higher here. In the classic fairy tale, Belle was repelled by the prince’s beastly appearance. Any romance that occurred, happened after he was transformed back into a human. In The Shape of Water, Elisa straight out gets her freak on with amphibian man, a fact that seems to elicit bewilderingly little response from her friends, other than Zelda’s questioning Elisa about the creature’s genitalia. But there are no expressions of shock from anyone. The film wants to convey a message that love is love, a lovely sentiment to be sure, but a creepy one when you’re talking about fish people. Yes, Amphibian Man appears to be sentient, so Elisa’s not taking advantage of him. But no matter how gifted a story teller you are, bestiality is a hard sell. And he’s a fish, already. Imagine the smell.
There’s also del Toro’s penchant for sometimes cruel violence. As in Pan’s Labyrinth, the film features a nightmarish antagonist. Captain Vidal in the earlier film was a ruthless dictator, a man whose self-hatred was satiated through the control of others and a love of torture. Michael Shannon’s Corporal Strickland is also self-hating, but he’s a uniquely American brand of psycho. When the creature severs his fingers, he has them surgically reattached, but the surgery doesn’t take. In a bit of devilish humor, we see the fingers slowly blacken throughout the film, finally degenerating into an oozing stench of rotting flesh. This is dark, delicious fun, and it’s the perfect metaphor the moral decay of both the Corporal and of the “win at all cost” mentality of military organizations. But when Strickland, like Vidal, goes postal, his intense and graphic outburst is difficult to watch.
Likewise, there’s the unnecessarily gruesome death of Gile’s cat. The plot device is meant to supply an urgent motive for returning the fish-man out of water to his natural habitat, but it merely renders the creature more repulsive. And Gile’s calm acceptance of the event strains credibility. Sorry fish man, you eat this gay man’s cat, and you’re sushi, after I finish bawling my eyes out of course. For lonely, gay Giles though, it’s apparently no big deal. But for myself and other cat lovers, it’s hard to separate the cruelty from the whimsy.
The cast works hard to sell the fantasy. Shannon plays Strickland with a chillingly steely eyed obsession. Spencer’s Zelda is pleasant if insubstantial. And Jenkins lonely neighbor is touching. As Amphibian Man, Doug Jones, a del Toro favorite, is perfectly cast. Jones is a brilliant physical actor, who because of his great height and his skills as a former contortionist, has made a career of playing non-humans. He played both the faun and the pale man in Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as Abe Sapien, the amphibian character in del Toro’s Hellboy films, who’s physically nearly identical to The Shape of Water’s Amphibian Man. And he currently plays Saru, one of the more interesting characters on the new Star Trek: Discovery. Heavily buried in makeup and various prosthesis’, his Amphibian man, like Elisa, is unable to speak, giving Jones full license to let loose physically. He’s strange, ethereal, believable, utterly fascinating, and completely unromantic.
At whatever level the film does succeed, it’s due mostly to Hawkins. Playing a mute is the ultimate test of an actor. Without words to hide behind, the performer’s physicality is the whole game. I have written before about the eyes of great actors, how the great ones don’t act so much as inhabit their characters. And how once this is done you can sense the character’s subtext in their eyes. This is such a performance. The warmth and common decency of her character radiates every bit as much as Amphibian Man’s luminescent skin. She’s utterly captivating, but she not enough to sell the grotesque love story.
Del Toro is a formidable talent, his visual style unique, his themes rich and intriguing. But those themes barely resonate in The Shape of Water. Though Colonel Strickland is an entertaining antagonist, the movie’s evil-government-destroys-anything-it-doesn’t-understand conflict was tired 30 years ago when Spielberg’s ET : The Extraterrestrial haphazardly tossed it into a third act desperately in need of conflict. And the unappetizing romance at the center of the film is never compelling enough to overcome this familiarity. For all its inspiration, its first-rate production values and its memorable cast, This Water is ultimately stagnant.