Director: Guillermo del Toro; Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen; Editing: Sidney Wolinsky; Production Design: Paul D. Austerberry; Set Decoration: Jeffrey A. Melvin & Shane Vineau; Costumes: Luis Sequeira; Score: Alexandre Desplat
Stars: Sally Hawkins (Elisa Esposito), Michael Shannon (Richard Strickland), Richard Jenkins (Giles), Octavia Spencer (Zelda), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr. Robert Hoffstetler), Doug Jones (Amphibian Man), David Hewlett (Fleming), Nick Searcy (General Hoyt), Stewart Arnott (Bernard), Nigel Bennett (Mihalkov), Lauren Lee Smith (Elaine Strickland), Martin Roach (Brewster), John Kapelos (Mr. Arzoumanian), Morgan Kelly (Pie Guy), Marvin Kaye (Burly Russian), Brandon McKnight (Duane)
The Shape of Water is indispensable in furthering understanding of director Guillermo del Toro‘s sprawling, shared multiverse of fantasy films. It’s a fulfillment of his artistic aspirations, clarification of the obsessive themes and surreal subject matter dispersed throughout his cinematic diaspora. Moreover, the movie is a genuinely sincere and loving homage to the sort of flicks the director himself adored as a kid and which wielded the strongest impact on him as an artist, inspiring him to eventually immigrate to America’s moviemaking mecca.
The Shape of Water is derived directly from his wheelhouse of movie imagery, building on del Toro’s love of Hollywood fables, and as such may be his most unabashed expression of their influence on his formative creative makeup. Like the fantastical creature at the movie’s core, the film is something of a hybrid itself, comprised equal parts of old creature features, Cold War espionage thrillers and escapist musicals. And as La La Land proved last year, Hollywood finds these flatteringly reverential homages to its own golden age irresistible. So The Shape of Water couldn’t help but be wholeheartedly embraced by movie aficionados who grew up on the same playlist that inspired it, reflecting back to us our own cinematic frame of reference. That shared sense of community makes all film goers kin, which is, in essence, one of the director’s recurring themes. The Shape of Water remains refreshingly quirky and out of the norm, harboring less mainstream appeal than more recent del Toros. Yet this outré variation on Splash may be his sweetest and most accessible foray yet into undreamed of realms of pure imagination. Though it evolves, like its amphibious man, into something far more profound, The Shape of Water has been disguised in the deceptively simple terms of a fairy tale for adults, lulling us like a bedtime story from its opening lines concerning a “princess without a voice… a tale of love and loss, and the monster who tried to destroy it all.” Set in the “last days of a fair prince’s reign,” this introduction invites us into the picture’s own dreamlike sphere of silence, a submerged world where chairs stand on end, suspended in the ethereal ether as if balancing mid-air. It’s a perfectly graceful environ where the buoyancy makes everything seem as light as floating feathers, things moving about in completely novel ways without the effects of gravity pulling on them.
This weightless world belongs to the same one Tim Burton contrived for last year’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which shared with del Toro many familiar themes concerning freaks of nature, orphans and social outcasts. The Shape of Water’s exquisite, rarefied dominion, where there is no sound, is ideal for a mute like Elisa (Sally Hawkins) to inhabit, a magic kingdom perfectly suited for mermaids and frog princes. To encourage ladylike deportment, girls grow up being called princesses by fawning parents, and this very Disney idea that all girls, no matter how humble their station, deserve to be placed on that pedestal, may actually have its roots in Mexican compatriot Alfonso Cuarón’s adaption of that perennial chestnut The Little Princess last century, which expressed a very similar sentiment.
This may be the first film in which del Toro has found a completely satisfying controlling metaphor for the fantasy world he’s conceived onscreen. The flats Giles (Richard Jenkins) and Elisa live in are situated directly over a cinema, subliminally inducing us to see the world through their own movie addled eyes, as a fictional, highly romanticized fantasy landscape out of Hollywood yore. As it was with the bespectacled father figure who kicked off the Hellboy sequel by reading a bedtime story to the little devil, del Toro has similarly fashioned Giles as Father Time here.
In doing so, The Shape of Water solves a key problem that plagued the director’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth over a decade back, which also attempted to position itself as a fairy tale being told to audiences, despite the absence of a warm and fuzzy narrator to spin its yarn. Since Jenkins’ cozy, lived in Giles serves as storyteller here, the movie is reshaped through the prism of his own perceptions, accounting for both the unorthodox visual style and surreal asides. Everything has been slightly warped into some strange alternate reality of the character’s own fashioning, where any semblance to the real world has been carefully airbrushed away, tuned out as easily as switching the turn knob of a TV.
Just as streaming service providers today, like Netflix and Amazon, are producing big screen-caliber movies with little thought to theatrical distribution, by the early ‘60s the medium of TV had already emerged as a threat to cinema’s predominant hold over the fantasies of the nation. Reflecting this fact, sets in The Shape of Water continually blare in the background, and cathode tube repair shops line the streets along Elisa’s bus route.
Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) diligently mans a bank of security monitors at the Occam Aerospace Research Center, and when she wants to communicate intel about this lab she works for, Elisa finds the camera’s blind spot so no one watching can read her lips, as the HAL-9000 did in 2001. And while it’s questionable whether such surveillance systems were in widespread use during the era the movie seems to be set, they certainly add to the Orwellian flavor of an omniscient Big Brother spying from an eye in the sky.
As it was with John Waters, Del Toro’s vision of ‘62 Baltimore is informed less by reality than his own pop-cultural fantasmagoria. As his creative unconscious teeters on the brink of camp, a caricatured junk bin of broadsides emerge, subsisting in a parallel timeline of their own. Set in “a small city near the coast but far from everything else,” the story unfolds in a completely autonomous world, as insular and self-contained as an aquarium. This idea is similar to what Todd Haynes was working through with Wonderstruck earlier in the year. In that film an equally mute Millicent Simmonds existed in a subjective state, inhabiting a stylized silent film world in which the absence of sound made perfect sense from her vantage. The surreal view del Toro fashions for us in The Shape of Water has similarly become all-encompassing, the other side of a glass darkly audiences have passed through, equal parts dreamy escapism and moody, perverse German Expressionism. Offset by a darker color palette, noir lighting and fisheye lenses, there’s no attempt to make this seem like a real world rather than a studio soundstage. A weirdly sustained, prefabricated illusion, the production may have been designed for a back lot. All things large and small, even Elisa’s apartment with its clam shell wallpaper and huge, fish bowl shaped bay window, impart the bombed out, industrialized look of a post-War blitzkrieg. The set design evokes influences as far ranging as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. With chocolate factory fires raging in the background and giving off the pleasant aroma of roasted coffee, ‘tragedy and delight go hand in hand’ here. This is a brave new world spinning through a Kafkaesque universe, as re-imagined for the bottom half of a B-movie double bill.
Del Toro’s visually sumptuous Crimson Peak, with its capitalist bloodsuckers, was designed along the lines of a blood red color scheme, as if someone had been exsanguinated in aesthetically pleasing patterns all over the screen. His Hellboy movies were conceived in competing shades, with Abe Sapien’s watery Blue world used as counterpoint to the title character’s Red pigmentation, evocative of fire and brimstone.
Varying degrees of seaweed green are the dominant tones in The Shape of Water, immersing us in an amphibiously aquatic world beneath the waves. In league with his cinematographer Dan Laustsen, production designer Paul D. Austerberry and costumier Luis Sequeira, del Toro has concocted a beautifully controlled color arrangement and lighting design, tinging everything in aqua shades, a direct reflection of the frog man’s rubbery flesh tones.
For example, the key lime pies Giles professes such a weakness for turn both his and Elisa’s tongues as green around the gills as the monster. Similarly, the gelatin parfait Strickland’s wife Elaine (Lauren Lee Smith) whips up seems to have been mixed with the same artificial food dyes. Commercial artist Giles’ former marketing firm contact, Bernard (Stewart Arnott), tells him the ad men want the paint in the posters promoting their products to be green-based as well, this verdant hue the latest trend, representing the future of business. The women’s cleaning uniforms are green, same as their time cards, Elisa’s robe and towels, Strickland’s phones and candies, while blinking red and green lights control personnel access levels like traffic stops. Having had his fill, when Strickland is complimented on his new car being ‘the most lovely shade of green,’ he balks, describing it instead as ‘teal,’ to distance himself as far as possible from the subject of his secret experiments.
Where del Toro’s fantasy world remained separate and apart from tangible reality in Pan’s Labyrinth, here he’s found a way to fully merge his antithetical concepts, eroding their line of demarcation clean away. But it broaches the abhorrent when sobering elements from our own reality, such as the racially charged Civil Rights marches on TV, occasionally intrude into this bubblegum flavored candy land. Wanting to block out such affronts to his rosier world view, Giles tries drowning out the white noise by flipping the channel to something less troubling. The Shape of Water may seem just as innocuously escapist as the old musical froth his station lights on, but as in the fairy tales that inspired it, one should never be fooled by superficial, surface appearances.
Instead, del Toro specifically wants to demonstrate how well-wrought fantasy can be turned to purposes of political allegory, as it has since the days of The Twilight Zone and all those atomic age monster movies, with their commentaries on the bomb, that so inspired him. The Shape of Water again proves how a make-believe and otherworldly context can disguise ideological issues of real social relevance, dressing timely and subversive elements in the enchanting wrappings of fairy tale, without anyone being the wiser. Though it may lack true depth, The Shape of Water couldn’t be more prescient, balm to the country’s political wounds.
As he stated in an interview with film critic Peter Travers, del Toro is looking back here, to a time before Camelot had fallen and the politically fractious social upheavals of the ‘60s had taken hold, to show just how “great” America actually was way back when for the underrepresented and voiceless. In a country still hung over from the Ike era, our main characters – Elisa, Giles and Zelda – walk through an archly conservative social order feeling like forgotten people, unseen and unheard. These ostracized minorities – mute, gay, black – each represent marginalized communities that the conformist era regarded as something of monsters, or at least freaks, themselves for falling so far outside the parameters of the white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant mainstream. A creature of the night who works the late shift, Elisa is predisposed to identify more with the pilloried and persecuted Amphibian Man, and other monsters run to ground with torch and pitchfork by baying lynch mobs fearing what they didn’t understand. Outsiders like these read an alternate interpretation into the subtext of those old Universal monster movies The Shape of Water salutes, above and apart from what their makers may have intended, just as the director himself clearly did when he first watched The Creature from the Black Lagoon as a kid. Their sympathies shifted from hero to villain in a way that Hollywood couldn’t have anticipated and didn’t catch on to for quite some time. We’re never shown Elisa or Giles actually watching creature features on TV themselves, the kind frequently shown blaring in the background of Hellboy’s man cave, but lorn, lonesome and left out as they are (“We are all alone,” Giles commiserates to her), they can understandably feel for others of their own kind. As the diametrically opposed Red and Blue agreed in Hellboy “Freaks have to stick together,” and The Shape of Water, as with so many of del Toro’s movies, concerns the sense of a familial community formed among fish out of water.
Influenced by mythology, comic books and old movies, del Toro is a fanboy at heart, and his Shape of Water is an attempt to reconcile his leanings toward esoteric, arcane studies, evident in more cerebral movies like Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, with the gawky geekishness of the comics and cheesy monster movies that informed more mainstream outings like Hellboy and Pacific Rim. The Shape of Water is an intermediary effort, an attempt to bridge that gulf with a more mature, socially relevant message movie. Del Toro’s seeking to justify himself as an artist here, which is a tad dispiriting.
It presupposes that his pulpier, less pretentious efforts need to be apologized and atoned for. In paying tribute to old Universal horror classics and creature features for instance, del Toro confers an aura of respectability upon them they would never have presumed to possess in their own day. Restoring their reputations in this manner is his means of elevating the material. Yet my hope for the director springs eternal. If he weren’t to some heartening degree still thinking in comic caption terms, he would never have tagged his main character with the very superheroish soubrette ‘Amphibian Man.’
Del Toro’s pop-culture fantasy films possess the Freudian fascination of Grimm fairy tales, rich with allusions, but lack the semblance of true psychological insight or complexity. The director’s grasp of character remains rudimentary at best, kept at subsistence level. But this is generally acceptable, given the comics flavored worlds he creates on screen, in which recognizable human beings would stand out against the panel art concept as starkly as fully articulated figurines. Elisa, the movie’s quixotic main character, would appear to have had her name lifted from Lerner and Lowe, whose Eliza Doolittle was likewise looked down upon due to a speech impediment. Certainly this allusion to My Fair Lady, the most popular musical of the era, is no simple coincidence in a movie that so full-throatedly embraces golden age musicals to the extent it does with that black and white interlude near the end. Alexandre Desplat’s zithery score full of mellifluous flutes and bubbly accordion notes, tends to evoke cobblestone boulevards and French cafés far more than the sea sounds heard when holding a conch to the ear. And there are clear elements of Audrey Tautou’s pixilated Amélie in Sally Hawkins’ whimsical performance as this childishly optimistic, unformed, fantasy prone character. She seems as Happy-Go-Lucky as she did in the Mike Leigh film that first brought her to prominence.
Sallow, with a wane, guppy look, she’s as winsome and wistful as the great silent slapstick comedians (the director instructed her to watch Chaplin and Keaton and closely model herself after Stan Laurel). It’s as if stray images from the Orpheum movie theater she lives over had irradiated the essence of Elisa’s being, not only influencing the way she sees the world around her, but also the world the movie reflects back to us. So it’s no surprise when her real, waking life becomes indistinguishable from the one right up on screen. We might’ve passed inside her reverie as Elisa restages everything around her the same way Roxie Hart did in Chicago – casting her own reality in terms of the movies she sifts through her imagination like a sieve, forming the lively fabric of her existence. Dancing with a mop as Astaire did with a coat rack or performing a soft-shoe tap with Giles while dreaming of tripping to the light fantastic, her frog prince lover may have been conjured from an indiscriminate mental merge of her favorite movies. He might have stepped straight off the screen to bring color, life, music into this scrub woman’s dingy, dishwater dull life, as Jeff Daniels did Mia Farrow’s in The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Seeming part aquatic herself, Elisa kicks off each morning like clockwork, methodically masturbating in the bathtub as if following a morning routine painstakingly planned out down to the last second. Pacing herself to the slow boil of the egg timer she’s set for breakfast, it’s as though her own biological clock were ticking away, counting down the days she’s ovulating. Subconsciously, Elisa already appears to be performing a fertility ritual, preconditioning herself for procreation, where millions of fish eggs are to be fertilized during spawning season. The water motif is carried forward to her self-affirmation calendar, whose daily thought expresses a similar belief that ‘time is but a river flowing from our past.’
We can understand why Elisa chooses to flirt with a fish man by giving him offerings of eggs, but not why he would then stuff himself to the gills with them as if they were caviar, another Cronus devouring his own. Later, blue discharges can be seen coursing through the excitable gill man’s veins, electric sparks like the fire breathed by Pacific Rim’s dragons. The creature lights up like a bioluminescent, deep sea life form as Elisa strokes him in the tub, as she once stroked herself in this same spot, encouraging his webbed fingers to do some similar walking. In this magical scene that allows audiences to live out their inner child’s fantasy of turning bath time into one giant wading pool, Elisa floods the water closet so she can engage in some passionate petting with her amphibious lover, outside the porcelain barrier between them.
Passing through the floor as if it were as immaterial as water, the camera likewise encounters no further impediments to block its fluid view, capturing their leaking pipes streaming down onto the heads of theater patrons (our proxies) below, the force of their feelings drowning them in their love. The subsequent break in the weather is like a dam crumbling, as puddles form on the pavement to remind a sexually satisfied Elisa of her previous night of passion. Shivering to herself in sweet satisfaction like Diane Lane in Unfaithful, her wet dream has been made manifest in the rainy season. Following this birth of Venus, Elisa’s wardrobe flowers into a colorful array of crimsons and scarlets. The salt crystals she’d poured into the tub reflect the light like emeralds, complimenting the red ruby slippers she now wears, while the camera tracks the raindrops streaking across her bus window as if they were sperm swimming upstream, a single minded school of salmon on their annual run.
The rainfall outside mirroring the deluge within, this water finds its way into every crevice, every nook and cranny, endlessly molding and reshaping itself, stretching, flattening, advancing and receding, into any pattern whatever. The meaning of The Shape of Water’s title is quoted at the end of the film in the form of a verse “written by someone in love hundreds of years ago” – “Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart. For you are everywhere.” This reference to the all-encompassing embrace of the divine has been re-purposed to refer to the cradle of the deep, as an overcome Elisa experiences it when immersing herself in the big drink. Lacking definition, love is envisioned here as being something amorphous, without discernible borders, outline or contour. Of infinitely shifting variety, it’s capable of taking on any form whatever, like water itself.
Coming in a myriad of shapes and sizes, it emerges from places one can’t even imagine and in forms they’d never have believed. Since it can’t be quantified, it’s impossible to know what mask love, in all its various guises, will wear and hence difficult to recognize it when it appears, especially given the mysterious ways it manifests in del Toro’s work. But love being blind and entirely subjective, beauty in the eye of the beholder, The Shape of Water makes it clear that it should be celebrated in whatever form it takes. The love of Elisa’s life turns out to not even be human, as Giles must remind her, while not judging her for her choice of mate, any more than she judges him, simply noting what an “interesting guy” she’s brought home. And when her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) indicates what first drew her to her own spouse with his vaguely fishy, wide-spaced eyes, claiming that “all he had going for him was animal magnetism back in the day,” she seems to be forecasting the nature of Elisa’s own animal attraction to the Amphibian Man, part lover and part exotic pet.
In traditional monster movies, where such love was deemed impossible, the convention was for the unfortunate beast to die from his unrequited feelings for the beauty that caught its eye. Resulting from del Toro’s desire to rewrite The Creature from the Black Lagoon and give it a happy ending, The Shape of Water takes a different tack entirely, with the monster getting the girl. Beginning with Cronos and continuing apace with other cabinets of curiosity such as The Devils Backbone, Blade 2, Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak, etc., the tragic theme of the misunderstood monster has been a sustaining thread throughout del Toro’s work, a refrain which reaches unprecedentedly baroque, operatic heights here. Looks can be deceiving, and the beastly guises his monsters assume invariably hide their inner beauty. When he was cast in Cronos, the film which first brought del Toro international attention, Ron Pearlman was still most fondly known for his leading role, buried beneath yards of yarn in the cult TV series Beauty and the Beast, which may very well be what drew the director to him. This flagship acquisition became the first in a long, proud line of other misshapen mutants, monsters and misfits that would stock del Toro’s overflowing bestiary.
All three main characters in The Shape of Water are emotionally chained up in their own ways, suffering to varying degrees from unsatisfying love lives. Though it effortlessly progresses, once upon a time, Elisa’s interspecies affair with the fish begins just as self-delusionally as Giles’ flirtation with the affable, tantalizingly out-of-reach soda jerk (Morgan Kelly) from his local lunch counter. Both Giles and Elisa’s painfully awkward first ‘dates’ seem like tragically one-sided affairs, with lovelorn Giles inventing excuses to buy pie just so he can ogle the object of his affection from afar, while a coy Elisa fixates on the mysterious, even more highly unconventional new ‘man’ in her own life, visiting him poolside like a pet fish in a Koi pond, to bashfully share her lunch. Slowly winning his trust knowing, like Zelda, that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, she feeds him as if he were a feral stray, smuggling in snacks to compliment the trays of meat and eggs served by his chief caretaker, scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). And he responds like an abused animal uncertain whether humans can be trusted or not, biting at the hand that feeds him out of fear, to test her response. We’re meant to be enchanted same as she is, by this far-fetched, slow dance of seduction with such a fantastical being. Where Giles’ love interest will prove a disappointment, a monster under the skin, affording an object demonstration on how looks can be deceiving, Elisa’s is revealed, in the tradition of fairy tales, to be a prince in disguise. On his same wavelength, she feels on equal footing for the first time, not having to rely on verbal communication with this creature from the deep, where sound as we know it ceases to exist, allowing the two to communicate non-verbally. Elisa acknowledges this fundamental bond herself, observing, “I move my mouth, like him. I make no sound, like him. What does that make me?” Citing predestination, ‘all she’s ever been’ has ‘brought her here to him,’ meaning some things were meant to be.
Entranced by reruns of Mr. Ed, with its talking horse, this dumb animal who likewise lacks the power of speech doesn’t see her as deficient in the way other people do. Instead, peering into her soul with fish bowl scrutiny, he accepts her for what she is, as God intended, imperfections and all. Trying to talk her down, convince Elisa not to embark upon such a rash act when she implores Giles to help her free Willy, he reminds her that little people such as them are too small and inconsequential to make a meaningful difference. But she remains adamant that if all society’s freaks would simply stand together, as they did at the end of the Tod Browning film, one of del Toro’s favorites, they could affect real change, outwitting the monsters in power. The scars on Elisa’s neck reveal where her voice box was surgically excised, literally depriving this woman of a say in her own affairs. In less enlightened times, mutes were referred to disparagingly as ‘dummies,’ blockheaded due to their condition, the unspoken assumption being that those without the common denominator of speech, like Elisa and the creature, can’t be seen as fully part of the human race. Language is integral, and the observation is made that we likewise dehumanized America’s enemies at the time, communists and the Vietnamese, to the point of killing them indiscriminately in war, just because they spoke in a foreign tongue. Making him feel less inadequate by comparison, Strickland chooses to see Elisa similarly, as a lower order of life, inherently inferior to him. He’s perversely attracted to her seeming state of utter helplessness, the way the fixated serial killer was in The Spiral Staircase, because he’s drawn to women he feels he can wield complete control over. It’s why he places his hand over the mouth of his moaning wife, muffling her in the midst of ecstasy (“I want you in silence.”), a moment that places blame for Elisa’s voiceless state at the hands of the oppressive patriarchal establishment he embodies. She gets Strickland going despite herself, the same way the gill man does her; he wants to make this mute squeal. He can feel secure sexually harassing Elisa with impunity because she literally can’t speak up for herself, much less accuse him with her words.
Elisa’s muteness is entirely metaphorical, meaning Sally Hawkins has the difficult task of playing a mousy woman denied a voice in the world who must make herself heard despite never uttering a peep. Her Elisa may be fully grown, but is so sexually and emotionally arrested, with her wide eyed innocence and nonjudgmental heart, she may as well still be a child. Indeed, with her sweaters and hairbands, she’s dressed and made up to closely resemble little Aurora from Cronos and Ofelia from Pan’s Labyrinth to a disconcerting degree. Prim, with perfect posture, she wears her washerwoman duds and bouffant flip as elegantly as Audrey Hepburn. Her frame seems to have been made for poodle skirts and silk blouses.
Yet as Elisa matures over the course of the film, finding her voice for the first time through the power of love, learning to make her own kind of music, Hawkins and del Toro, interestingly, incorporate elements into the character of the more mature, self-sufficient housekeeper Mercedes, played in Pan’s Labyrinth by Maribel Verdú who Hawkins, with her similarly sharp profile and wiry frame, also physically calls to mind. Theoretically, Elisa could be taken for the insecure, frightened Ofelia just growing into the more capable, defiant Mercedes, captured by the camera at some evolutionary, intermediary stage, same as the creature itself.
This woman who starts out the film as a dithery sprite becomes warily becalmed and watchful, vindictiveness flickering behind her green eyes, which reflect the algae covered tincture of the briny deep as they peer without blinking directly back into the faces of intimidating authority figures. Her simmering silence speaking volumes, love gives her an inner fire. Eventually, a defiant Elisa loses all fear of repercussions, exuding a sphinx-like, appreciative self-awareness in her reckless behavior.
In a whirl of sign language, hands flying every which way, she can’t resist flipping off an uncomprehending Strickland with everything but the bird, resorting to strong words suitable only for translation in closed captioning for the deaf and hearing impaired. Elisa has coiled nerves of steel inside, which is apparent why she isn’t squeamish about retrieving those disembodied fingers she comes across after they’ve been chomped on by the swamp creature, gingerly placing them in her paper sandwich bag.
As women, and cleaning ladies at that, ostensibly performing the menial jobs other working-class Americans consider beneath them, Elisa and Zelda, the underpaid, overworked custodians at the Occam Aerospace Research Center, are accorded no respect – their opinions instantly discounted. Strickland refers to their conversation dismissively as ‘girl talk,’ and his low regard for them is indicated by the fact that he saunters into the john despite their presence, in a way no gentleman would before ladies he considered worthy of respect, much less veneration, cavalierly sullying the toiletry they’d just left spic and span. How loathsome he is at core is further made apparent from the advice he lives by, that washing hands both before and after using the urinals signals a weakness of character, which excuses his exiting without applying soap or water, to the cleaning ladies’ horror.
Given his god complex, this devilish figure can’t comprehend how such insignificant creatures could find the wherewithal to constitute a unified threat to his uncontested supremacy (“What am I doing interviewing the f*cking help,” he rages rhetorically after the creature goes missing), convinced the heist could only have been carried out by an elite team of special Red Force Operatives. But like the formidable maid Spencer played in The Help, these aren’t the sort of women to be trifled with or slighted.
The speech concerning how foolishly Strickland underestimates them, is an almost line for line rewording of Mercedes’ own insurrectionist diatribe about the rebel faction in Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s specifically because these women fall beneath the respectable purview of polite society that they can operate with such impunity, pilfering information and security access right out from under the government’s nose. This is the cartoony type of film where the cleaning ladies can be carting the creature out in a laundry basket right past an oblivious Strickland’s office, without him ever once turning around to take notice.
Del Toro has fashioned the Strickland character as a direct descendant of that fascist general Vidal from Pan’s Labyrinth, the inhuman fiend who coldbloodedly busted a wine bottle in the face of a harmless dissident, and this latest villainous incarnation seems every bit as unhinged and homicidal. Especially in that nerve-wracking scene where he calls Elisa into his office to clean up a spilled drink and creepily expresses his sexual interest in her, just as Vidal did Mercedes. Strickland, a monster in human form, even begins to resemble the one he’s meant to be hunting down here. Much as a macabre, clownish gash was cut into Vidal’s cheek, the inexorable mark of the true beast becomes evident in Strickland as well, in a way that can no longer be hidden, when he suffers an incapacitating, symbolic ‘castration’ at the hands of his chief romantic rival. Though his fingers are sewn back on after the lizard bites them off, the decaying flesh begins to rot like spoiled meat, or day old fish, making one wonder where those fingers have been. Useless now, they blacken and corrode like a transplant that won’t take, as though the venomous saliva of a Komodo dragon had infected the wound. As serviceable replacement, Strickland wields his prosthetic cattle prod, using it the same way the racist cops on TV resort to their cudgels. Popping pain killers like candy, Strickland morphs into a hair-raising horror movie monster, stalking down the apartment building corridors, with their redrum doors, like a crazed Jack Nicholson in The Shining. All he’s missing is the axe. Rather than the creature, it’s Strickland who is the affront here, the “something offensive” Zelda defines the word as meaning. And Michael Shannon, who at times resembles Raymond Massey playing Boris Karloff in Arsenic and Old Lace, gives an outsize, truly terrifying performance. Fish rot from the head, and as his body breaks down physically, like some David Cronenberg character, a demoniac fury seems to be driving him further and further on, to extremes, until we can’t be sure what he’s capable of. Recalling memories of the drastic measures taken to extract information from captive victims in other del Toro movies, it’s enough to raise our hackles when Strickland heads out to inexorably hunt down first Zelda and then the mute Elisa, determined to make them talk by employing the same heinous torture methods he’d exacted on the water beast before.
Though Elisa needn’t worry, a poster in the company’s changing room reiterates the wartime axiom “loose lips might sink ships,” encouraging her and Zelda not to let slip anything that might give away the well-rehearsed performance they’re putting on to throw the authorities off the track. Approving of the blank Mona Lisa smile daydreaming Elisa wears, Zelda amusingly tells her to keep it up, looking like she doesn’t know anything, since any deviation from the norm could place them in serious legal jeopardy. Zipping their pie holes, their lips are sealed, and this determination to remain mum has added meaning given the times, still fresh off the darkest days of the McCarthy era witch hunts, in which people were pulled before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Coerced into singing like canneries, witnesses freely turned informant by squealing on their friends and neighbors alike, to save their own skins. Commenting on Elisa’s infirmity, Zelda describes her own uncommunicative husband Brewster (Martin Roach) as being “silent as a grave,” unable to get even a thank you out of him, making it clear that at home she lives in a world as hushed and stilled as the mute herself must, which helps explain the women’s close friendship. She’s an old hand at interpreting all of her husband’s needs and wants through nonverbal cues, so it takes only a slight rerouting of her circuitry to interpret for Elisa. Unable to speak up for herself, the sassy, outspoken Zelda does all the talking back for her (“I answer mostly on account of she can’t talk.”).
A fellow orphan, whose mother died in childbirth, Strickland pointedly refers to Zelda by her middle name Delilah, a forebear who spun a web of false promises to ensnare Samson, much as Strickland suspects Zelda will prove true to form by proving false to him, a betrayal of biblical proportions. He also serves to subliminally plant the suspicion in the audience’s mind that she’s not to be trusted. Adding to our doubts, Zelda tells the innocent Elisa that she’s not a good liar, having only had domestic practice, it taking a lot of little white lies to sustain a marriage long term.
So we wait with trepidation to see which side she’ll ultimately play false, especially when Zelda impedes her getaway by confronting Elisa on her way out the door with the creature, determined to prevent her from absconding with company property. But despite her worries that she wouldn’t be able to remain strong under cross-examination, it’s instead Zelda’s taciturn spouse who pipes up for the first time in eons, only so he can name names by pointing an accusatory finger at her best friend, and in so doing lose the last vestige of his wife’s respect. As reward for playing Judas by spilling the beans, Brewster instead earns Strickland’s gratitude, being offered an appreciative handshake, which seems akin to striking a devil’s bargain with Satan himself.
Patching through an emergency call as she earlier had to Dr. Hoffstetler, to give Elisa ample warning that a monster is on its way, when Zelda expresses the danger in her own words (“He’s coming for you.”), for some reason she unduly evokes Whoopie Golberg’s “Child, you in danger” from Ghost, making it somewhat difficult to take the dire prognostication seriously, despite the circumstances. And the ending is confusion worse confounded when Zelda arrives like the cavalry, with a military police escort, and they just mill around aimlessly once on the scene, like supers without direction. And it’s anybody’s guess how these accomplices after the fact are going to clean up the mess they’ve gotten themselves into, now that the authorities are involved. They should’ve let Strickland take the truth to his grave, allowed it to die with him.
Octavia Spencer, with her huge, almond-shaped eyes, great bullfrog throat and that snaggletooth that gives her face added distinction, played a NASA numbers cruncher in last year’s Hidden Figures, but here appears to have been summarily demoted, devolved back into the ranks of the help by being cast to type as a cleaning lady. So much for the strides claimed to have been made by hashtags like #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite. Instead of struggling to work her way up into middle management she’s regressed, and her acting mode has slipped back comparably into the caricatured, bug-eyed phase of her career, topped with a towering beehive.
But considering the sights she’s privy to in this case, who can blame those pop eyes for bulging out of her head? This role might have been specifically written with Spencer in mind, as Hawkins’ role was for her, since it serves as a highlight reel of the best bits from her previous performances; simply more of the same. But considering the gold the actress has spun out of limited material in the past, we had the right to expect at least a performance of comparable caliber. It’s not that Spencer’s bad here; far from it. It’s just that her character seems so completely tangential to the main thrust of the plot.
Compared to her usual screen time, the actress hardly seems to clock in at all until near the end, when she stops being the tiresome, responsible one, cautioning Elisa against doing anything impulsive, and throws in with the merry band of co-conspirators against her better judgment, becoming as screwy and devil-may-care as they are. Still, the director hasn’t come up with anything particularly significant or memorable for her to do here, leaving the stranded actress to color in the character by delving into her familiar bag of rib nudging tricks, providing all the films humor, again leaving the spooked black character in a monster movie playing comic relief, despite the presumption that the story would be told from the vantage of the outsider this time. So it is that, despite working clever tongue-twisting wonders with her throwaway lines, and effortlessly stealing the scenes she’s in with Hawkins, Spencer fails to give the most engrossing supporting performance in the picture as she usually does.
That’s an honor which, surprisingly, goes to the usually nondescript Richard Jenkins. His Giles serves the same kind service at home as Zelda does in Elisa’s work life, verbally interpreting her sign language for the edification of audiences, the way William Hurt did for Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God. They find this mute woman the perfect listener, an ideal sounding board for their cares and woes (Giles tells Elisa that she’s the only person he can talk to.). And only fellow outsiders would go so out of their way to make a commiserate effort to understand her. But as conceits of scriptwriters del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, they’re both little more than glorified seeing eye dogs.
As an actor, I can’t recall Jenkins ever giving such a spontaneous performance as this before, seeming so self-effacingly funny and eager and game for anything. He owns this film, even upstaging Spencer, no slouch at scene stealing herself. Wearing fisheye bifocals the consistency of inch-thick coke bottles, he’s lost so much weight he hardly looks himself as Giles, the “proverbial starving artist” who would waste away without Elisa to look after him. She delivers meals on wheels before leaving for work, much as she’ll share her picnic lunches poolside.
A recovering alcoholic, this disgraced, struggling ex-commercial illustrator harbors the finer, sensitive soul of a true, tortured artiste. He’s still trying to hold on to his dignity, some semblance of fading, shabby gentility despite the hard times on which he’s fallen. Grasping at the final, fading remnants of the American dream, he’s as desperately obsequious and single-minded as the toadying Strickland, chasing after some arbitrary idea of worldly success. Even when Giles sells his art under the table, as blacklisted writers were forced to under McCarthy, the old advertising firm crony fronting for him can’t chance being seen associating publicly, for fear of endangering his own reputation.
Giles takes in the Amphibian Man as if he were some exotic new species of tropical fish, keeping him in a bath tub full of saltwater like Daryl Hannah in Splash. Though his sopping presence constantly taunts Giles, who used to drink like a fish but now can’t touch a drop, the creature also comforts him because he too feels out of step with the modern world. Wanting to shut out reality and the indisputable fact that times are changing, making him feel like they’ve passed him by, that there is no future for him, Giles instead lives in the happy memories of his past, moldering among the ruins. This is what emotionally bonds him to the equally archaic, ancient artifact trawled up from the Amazon basin, unwillingly dragged out of the primordial ooze of man’s past and into the modern space age. In a great monologue for Jenkins, his Giles confides in the creature man to man, pensively reflecting that he doesn’t know where all the years went.
He sees life dismally, as simply the shipwreck of his dreams and is not unlike that wizened, aging child trapped in an old man’s body he played in Matt Reeves’ Americanization of Let Me In. When he looks in the mirror these days, all he recognizes are his same old eyes now swimming in a craggy, wrinkled face. Like the frog man who seems stuck somewhere on the evolutionary ladder, indiscriminately heading either up or down, Giles feels he was born either too early or too late for his life, resolving that “maybe were just both relics.” He’s reflecting familiar sentiments first encountered in the director’s Cronos, in which a diabolic device conferred unnaturally long life on its possessors, whose existences were extended long after their spirit for living was gone. This tenuous link between Giles and the gill man is established in other ways as well, the two being visually correlated when each stands at his window looking out on the downpour, the camera panning from one man’s apartment over to the next.
Giles begins the film apolitical, resolute in his desire not to get involved, jeopardizing himself at a time when his personal livelihood is already in a precarious state. Clapping hands over ears to block out the disturbing sights and sounds, he pointedly asks Elisa to turn the TV away from the civil rights protesters being hosed in the streets to an escapist musical for instance, tuning out any reality that might violently affront his sensitive soul, startling him out of his complacency. What brings him back round to civic engagement is the first hand prejudice he witnesses directed against two black customers (Karen Glave, Danny Waugh) at the restaurant.
This incident, where they attempt to patronize the segregated Dixie Doug’s diner he’s been frequenting, would actually have cut closer to home if Zelda’s presence had been used to better advantage, to reflect the racism she’s been incorporated into proceedings to represent. But Giles subsequently finds himself subjected to a comparable form of bigotry when his presence is deemed unsavory for a family friendly establishment by the dreamy young soda jerk he’d projected so many false illusions onto.
Apparently not believing homophobia would’ve been enough to get audience dander up, the movie feels the need to stack racism on top of it, making the franchise’s owner a complete monster, but then that’s the point. With del Toro, it’s invariably the monsters who prove the heroes, and the traditional heroes who prove the monsters, subtly subverting our preconceived expectations. As the opening voiceover put it in Hellboy, “What makes a man a man,” are the choices he makes in life, not in what imperfect form he starts out, leaving people’s behavior to define their character.
Beauty being only skin deep, it’s by their actions that we shall know them, so the measure of a true monster, according to del Toro’s own logic, is summed up by this appealingly cheery soda jerk who reveals his true colors by reflexively drawing back in revulsion from the older man’s touch, his falsely friendly facade falling away as surely as his Southern accent. He turns out to be a genuine jerk, like the bigots in Pleasantville, when their black and white world began shifting to more complex shades of gray. Forced to confront social injustice head on for the first time, when it’s most important to rise up and be counted, Giles is moved to act, taking as definite a stand as Rock Hudson did in that diner at the end of Giant. Souring on them, he wipes the bitter taste of Dixie Doug’s pies out of his mouth, same as Elisa instinctively had earlier. This square peg believed he could fit himself into the unaccepting circles of mainstream society, until confronted by the ugly reality. Having been duly chastised, Giles returns to Elisa despite having turned a deaf ear to her plaintive pleas earlier. Having nothing left to lose, he’s now ready to throw caution to the wind, following her lead in the harebrained scheme to liberate the animal from its cage, concurring that “Whatever this thing is, you need it. Just tell me what to do.” As far back as the orphan schoolboys in The Devil’s Backbone and the rebel guerrillas in Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s endangered heroes have invariably proven to be that rare, brave breed who buck the system in order to stand by their own principles and do what’s right, fighting back even at great personal cost to themselves, as do Elisa, Giles and Zelda. In helping to liberate the creature, this lonely, frustrated trio free themselves from their own inhibiting shackles as well. Certainly the amphibian is a life force for them, re-injecting some measure of passion and meaning into all their shriveled existences. Under his influence, they’re all raised like Lazarus and granted a second lease on life, which seems nearly as impressive as watching an entombed toad leap with renewed vigor from out a hollowed rock. They come more and more alive as they commit high crimes in the course of their rescue mission. Elisa starts breaking from her own fixed behavioral patterns, deviating from her rigidly adhered to morning regime, inspiring her friends and co-workers to institute positive changes in their own lives. Giles can again put to use those artistic skills taken for granted so long by the ruthlessly competitive business world that wanted no part of him, painting that disguising logo on their getaway van.
Making himself over through toupees, makeup and costuming into an international man of derring-do, he synchronizes their watches “Just like they do in the movies.” A one-man fountain of youth, the creature wields a rejuvenating effect on Giles, healing his scars overnight, as E.T. did with that magic finger, and making him feel more energized and alert than he has in years. The creature makes him feel young again, the way that Pie Guy briefly did. His hair even begins growing back, exfoliating the bald, egg-shaped palate he’d once boasted, though his hyped up enthusiasm over its reappearance tends to make him sound like an overzealous subscriber to Hair Club for Men.
Zelda willfully blinds herself to all the high weirdness occurring at work, clapping hands over eyes, not wanting to know and hence feel compelled to act on the knowledge. But working a miracle on her uncommunicative husband, letting him find his voice, opens up a dialogue between them for the first time in years, forcing her to reevaluate the marriage, opening her eyes to its exploitative nature. Having removed the blinders, as Elisa removes her night mask every morning, she can see clearly now the rain is gone. Cavalierly puffing on cigarettes under the No Smoking sign at work, they’re all guilty of bending rules to some extent, which is why Zelda dismisses the notion that Elisa deserves to be surrendered to the authorities, as her husband suggests, because she “broke the law.”
As it was with the otherworldly visitors in Splash and E.T., our unlikely heroes are determined to restore this creature to his native habitat, springing him from the research center before he’s dissected, and releasing him back into the wilds through the canal once the rains come, raising the tide level high enough to carry him out to sea. Wanting to liberate every fish from its tank, washing them into the great ocean beyond by flushing them down the toilet, they might be PETA at large, taking a stand against animal cruelty. Standing around doing nothing, as Elisa points out, would make them something less than compassionate human beings. But the biological hazard to which they may be subjecting the eastern seaboard by absconding with radioactive government waste, is never made mention of. Such essentials needn’t really be given consideration in a fantasy format, but there are other issues.
Apparently the creature must be kept marinated with saltwater, lest he dehydrate, which doesn’t explain why the freshwater rain seems to replenish his stores once he steps out into the downpour. Being neither fish nor fowl, this amphibious creature can switch between two different breathing apparatuses, like a mudskipper, apparently equipping him to live on land or sea. But he appears to become asthmatic when removed too long from his iron lung, as if he can’t process the polluted air of this industrial clogged landscape, resembling some Scandinavian fish hatchery. Removing him from his tank just seems to make him sickly, giving us pause for a moment to consider if the altruistic motivation to set him free by keeping him in a cramped tub was misguided since, once out of the open water, removed from its all-encompassing embrace, the creature slowly languishes, shedding his scales like translucent shingles as he pines away, longing to bound about in the great outdoors.
The Shape of Water’s apparent empathy for the animal kingdom doesn’t extend in other directions however. Splash had an amusing bit where the mermaid was trailed down the street by a pack of hungry felines licking their chops. And Hellboy adored the furry critters, his most humanizing trait, evidence of the gentle soul beneath the satanic exterior. Which is why what del Toro allows to occur to Giles’ cat seems such a major misstep, breaking the enchanted spell that’s held us under sway up to this point by assaulting our fundamental knowledge that cats eat fish, and not vice versa. Based on audience acquaintance with his earlier Hellboy movies, del Toro seems to be consciously seeking to undermine our expectations with this self-referential insert. But whatever the intent, it backfires badly, alienating viewers at the very moment we should be finding the amphibious man most endearing. Instead the presumably sympathetic creature is converted into as terrifying a monstrosity as that Pale Man with hands for eyes, who similarly cannibalized the poor fairies in Pan’s Labyrinth.
He behaves in the selfsame monstrous fashion we’d been convinced a slanderous Strickland was unfairly accusing him of. As is, we’re not quite sure how to take it when he responds with rabid animal instinct, so jarringly out of character does it seem. It convinces us that the gill man falls further down the evolutionary tree than we had first suspected, closer to the order of reptiles. If he poses this type of danger to others, then under the wild animals act he warrants being kept on the leash where they found him. Once bitten we become wary of him, second guessing the motives of this gill man, same way we did The Faun in Pan’s. Nagging questions suddenly flood the mind. Such as whether he was manipulating Elisa all along into loosening his ties a little just so he could escape his chains, cooing and chittering at her with the seemingly rational ravings of a mad man. All we’re sure of is that, given his volatility, we no longer feel safe for the other characters around him, and just wait for some trigger to incite his savagery again. Which is plainly not what del Toro intended, given the usual sympathy he expends on the misbegotten. So while Elisa may see his finer qualities, the movie keeps gilly at arm’s length from us, as just another tin canned chicken of the sea.
From a strictly technical angle though, the director, who studied makeup under the great Dick Smith, has conjured another fantastical beast with limited recourse to CG, and the sound solidity of this retrofitted frog man when relating to the other performers in real space, makes all the difference in the world. With fully articulated armature, he’s quite a departure from the computer animated title character concocted for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake earlier in the year, for instance. Molding itself to Doug Jones’ most subtle facial movements, the latex and silicone looking suit was actually sculpted of K-4 jelly from a body cast impression of the actor. In static closeup, the Amphibian Man’s goggle eyes look as plastic as the cheapest, ping pong eyed monster suits seen in ‘50s chillers. But when animate, his snorkel mask is minutely nuanced, like the simian faces in the original Planet of the Apes, allowing viewers to understand every stray thought and misgiving that crosses his mind, such as when he places Giles’ hand on his head as if he wanted to be petted. Still, this Amphibian Man lacks the same wondrous horror of Doug Jones’ Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth or even his Angel of Death in Hellboy 2. Even more than the Creature from the Black Lagoon which ostensibly inspired him, The Shape of Water’s gilly man is actually a reworking of the conceptual design for Abe Sapien from del Toro’s Hellboy movies, and for those who felt the character warranted more screen time, The Shape of Water attempts to recompense them. But while Hellboy’s Abe was erudite and overly civilized, a fussy, C-3P0 perfectionist, all rationale to Hellboy’s temperamental flare-ups, here he’s been deprived of intelligent speech, like Elisa, making us sorely miss Abe’s humorous asides. Filament fins flapping at the side of his head like a raptor, this gold-flecked amphibian also shares with Abe the ability to form empathetic connection with other beings, affording him a psychic insight into the human condition. Forming a deep and abiding emotional bond with Elisa for instance, he’s able to pick up her every thought and feeling, as were the mentally conjoined co-pilots of those gigantic transformers in del Toro’s Pacific Rim, fusing two halves into one whole.
As with Hawkins, who remains completely conscious of her poise and comportment at all times, tightly holding in her thin frame, Jones’ performance is a matter of body language and eloquent gesticulation, all contours and the visually pleasing flow of lines. It’s a water ballet worthy of Esther Williams, captured in the most exquisitely wavy environ conducive to graceful movement. And when on dry land, he hops about on all fours like that wind up toy frog in The Devil’s Backbone. Perhaps the granddaddy of this type of moving picture pantomime was Lon Chaney as far back as the silent era. Born of deaf-mutes parents, Chaney learned from an early age to communicate nonverbally, as Elisa and the creature must do, and took pride in revealing the humanity beneath his characters’ monstrous exteriors.
Standing on the shoulders of such giants, Jones is refining his own specialized field of acting, with each new creation added to his ever expanding chamber of horrors. While paying tribute to the long line of monster suit progenitors that preceded him, he’s making this 21st century art form all his own, carving a unique niche in a newfangled movie landscape now dominated by green screen. I used to believe that Andy Serkis, with his incomparable mastery of motion capture and Javier Botet, who is doing for special effects hobgoblins what Jones is for his latex suit counterparts, were in a class of their own. But with The Shape of Water, Jones proves himself their equal, fully worthy of moving into that same select circle.
The Shape of Water verges into philosophical considerations of creationism versus Darwinism, a contrast that reaches ironic heights when Fleming (David Hewlett), who’s positioned in proceedings as a contradiction in terms – a religiously devout scientist, censures Zelda’s squawking over the mess made by the work crew by maintaining that there’s no call for blasphemy. The two concepts even come face to face when the creature, the seeming embodiment of evolutionary thought, is discovered transfixed before a Demillian biblical epic, The Story of Ruth, after temporarily escaping his confines.
Much as Splash’s mermaid educated herself on human life by watching TV, film is likewise shown here as possessing the power to soothe the savage beast, much as the music Elisa played for him on del Toro’s familiar old turntable had earlier. Like hominids who first crawled out of the ocean, this antediluvian throwback seems to be evolving its reptilian body type and bone structure into a more human physique, boasting the sort of sculpted exoskeleton that your garden variety man could only dream of, with every muscle clearly defined and delineated.
A holdover from the age of dinosaurs, the creature suggests an alternate track humans may have evolved along, if they’d descended from monitor lizards rather than apes. Knowing more about the universe than they do the bottom of the sea, the research center scientists find themselves looking to the ocean floor to unravel the secrets of the stars, this relic from our primordial beginnings offering them insight into time travel to the far-flung corners of the cosmos.
While Strickland’s son (Jayden Greig), intending to bury a time capsule at his new school, asks if men of tomorrow will possess jetpacks like Flash Gordon, it’s his mercenary, opportunistic father who the Cadillac salesman (Dan Lett) designates as the trendy new ‘man of the future,’ as distinguishable from this indigenous creature of the past who he imperialistically tries to crush and subjugate, a dying breed in possession of the holistic wisdom of the ages.
The Amphibian Man is pressurized in a stainless steel vat like a mummy sarcophagus and when he floats upright, brandishing his enormous webbed talons, he resembles nothing less than another Nosferatu. Housed in the labyrinthine, dungeon-like bowels of the research center, his ceramic tiled holding tank, with wavy, reflected light shimmering off the ceiling and sea foam curdling on the surface, resembles an emptying sewer constructed of tube chutes, incinerators and exposed suction hoses, as much as a cement hole.
More than a sterile, space age test site, this containment unit seems a mad alchemist’s medieval workshop, with juts of steam rising straight from the floor as if from a NYC manhole. The creature is just another captured Roswell alien to be studied and experimented upon by callous, Operation Paperclip style scientists. The Russians here are said to hate Jews but can’t get enough of their gadgets, any more than the Americans could get enough of the rocket research brought over by Nazi collaborators after WW II, which went so far in developing our own space program.
Despite being criminals suspected of war atrocities, what they could offer the U.S. government apparently trumped amnesty laws. Certainly the experiments performed on the creature here seem as horrific as other inhumane medical experiments carried out in the camps and by our own government against its citizens, without their knowledge or consent. Strickland just wants to dissect this guinea pig for scientific study, see what makes him tick. The poor animal is simply a means to an end, like those dogs and chimps without a voice to protest, who were rocketed into space to study the effects of zero gravity on living life forms. Far from seeing it as human, Strickland doesn’t even see the Amphibian Man as a sentient, cognitive being capable of thought and able to feel pain. To him, animals have no souls, leaving the creature martyred on the cross of scientific progress, adhered to a slide and stuck under a microscope, as the misshapen monsters were in such earlier del Toros as Hellboy and Blade 2. Del Toro’s moral surrogates in movies are always easily recognizable because they invariably sport the director’s own signature, round eyeglass frames. Following Jesus Gris in Cronos, Dr. Casares in The Devil’s Backbone, Dr. Ferreiro in Pan’s Labyrinth, Trevor “Broom” Buttenholm in Hellboy, etc., in The Shape of Water that role has been filled by Michael Stulbarg as the ethically conflicted Russian doctor Robert Hoffstetler, who forfeits his espionage activities in favor of a more humanistic cause, a colorful variation on Mark Rylance’s Rudolf Abel from Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. The book of anatomical sketches Hoffstetler turns over to Russian intelligence resembles the sketchbook the director himself nearly lost in a taxi cab while preparing Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as the Faun’s illuminated manuscript which would be featured in that film. Even this atheist Soviet scientist, who believes organized religion to be the opiate of the masses, see a divine hand behind this creature, considering it an “intricate, beautiful thing,” virtually a work of art. Studying him with rapt, wide-eyed fascination, he’s a visionary swept away by the creative possibilities. His link with other artists sets him at odds with the military industrial complex that has conscripted him, in the interests of exploiting what is referred to in transactional terms as an “asset” for personal gain. Paraphrasing Lenin’s saying that “there is no profit in last week’s fish,” the Soviets see no value in the U.S. government’s new acquisition, claiming they don’t need to learn from the creature, they just need to prevent the Americans from learning from it, and hence gaining a possible edge over them in the space race. Hoffstetler’s handler Mihalkov (Nigel Bennett), when not slinking around like a man in black, scarfs down the Surf and Turf house specialty, the creature’s own kind, as if it were a heaping helping of escargot. And his hard-crusted comments (“The lobsters are boiled right here. They squeak a little, but they are so soft and sweet.”) reveal him to be as apathetic to the suffering of small animals as the Americans themselves.
Stuhlbarg proved himself the years most valuable player by appearing in just about everything, the horse glue holding Hollywood together the way character players once did. While forgettable in The Post and finding critics more kindly disposed toward him in Call Me by Your Name, despite not having enough screen time, it may actually be The Shape of Water that took full advantage of the idiosyncratic humor he evidenced in the Coen Brothers’ sardonic A Serious Man many moons ago. A double agent playing the Americans against the Russians, this spy who comes in from the cold was easily Stulberg’s most indelible turn out of all his many appearances last year. And with Russia currently under investigation for having illegally infiltrated America’s most sacred democratic institutions, we don’t seem to have advanced very far, politically speaking, in the last half century or so.
Hoffstetler, despite sporting a German moniker, is the ultimate alien outsider at the height of the Red Scare. The threat posed by commies like him was used metaphorically in such movies as The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only thinly obscured in the guise of other alien invaders, a fact which indirectly links the character to his fellow life form here. The allusion becomes even more explicit when both he and the creature are shot while trespassing in international waters, Strickland snagging each quarry on the brink of escape, hook, line and sinker.
Considering him the catch of the season, when Stickland, to our horror, latches his bacteriologically blackened fingers into the bullet holes shot through an incapacitated Hoffstetler’s cheek and drags him along the ground, he’s turned into the spitting image of a fish on a hook. Electro-prodding him in the rain for information, just as he earlier had the gill man, this government sanctioned federal agent has no qualms about employing torture tactics until Hoffstetler cracks, naming names, placing his fellow travelers in the chief interrogator’s sights.
It’s related that the primitive Amazon natives inhabiting the shores where the creature was netted worshiped this iguana as a god, but as Strickland’s superior, General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) observes, “doesn’t look like much of a god now does he?,” anymore than Kong did when brought back to New York, humbled and in chains. But as with audiences, his predisposed prejudices have blinded him to who is actually meant to be god here and who devil. Sounding like a defeated, apocalyptic preacher on the cusp of asking his flock to commit mass suicide, Strickland prods that “The world is sinful. Wouldn’t you say so, Delilah?… The thing we keep in there is an affront,” and from his way of thinking, about as far as could be conceived from the divine plan.
“You may think that thing looks human. Stands on two legs, right? But, we’re created in the Lord’s image. You don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?” Though knowing how the race and complexion of Jesus has been co-opted and lightened in Western art and religion, Zelda responds with a tad more humility, “I wouldn’t know, sir, what the Lord looks like.” But, adding racism to his long litany of sins, Strickland regurgitates the same longstanding physiognomy of a blue-eyed, blond-haired Jesus, “Well, it’s human, Zelda. He looks like a human, like me. Or even you. Maybe a little more like me, I guess.”
In other del Toro movies, such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy, audiences initially misconstrued the motivations of satanic looking figures, fearing they harbored diabolic intentions, unable to overcome our preconceptions concerning misleading appearances. But in The Shape of Water the director, a relapsed Catholic, takes this concept one step farther, heretically asking viewers to accept his Amphibian Man not just as hero, but as a higher order of life, some sort of Second Coming. Cronos correlated the Resurrection with notions of vampirism, the living dead rising from the grave, and here the director again uses his central monster as a metaphor for Jesus Christ. Even Giles begins questioning “Now, is he a god? I don’t know, I don’t know,” but like the faithful, he wants to believe, bowing his head low in deference before him. Walking a fine line between the sacred and the profane, the director has man, despite being created in God’s own image, turn out to be satanic here, while his Lord and savior returns in demonic form. When the gill man rises from the grave, sprouting switchblade spikes down his back like the bony plate of a dimetrodon, he’s like the proverbial horror movie monster who won’t stay dead, but our emotions are all mixed up by this point with the movie’s own themes of gods and monsters, leaving us not knowing what to think.
Standing erect on two legs, gilly’s evolution seems complete when he pulls himself up to his full height, walking like a man. As the literal embodiment of the sign of the fish, this Amphibian Man might be an elemental force of nature, in command of the heavens themselves, which open up and rain down, watering him at film’s end. Delivering divine judgement on both saint and sinner alike, he strikes with terrible vengeance, silencing Strickland permanently with one hand, and giving Elisa voice with the other. Having taken unto himself the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, injecting figurative life back into all of the movie’s unfulfilled characters, he literally raises Elisa from the dead at the end, in classic fairy tale fashion with true love’s kiss. Though it seems fishy that, if he possessed this Christ-like power of resurrection all along, it wasn’t extended to bringing that poor cat he killed back to life. This god seems to move in singularly mysterious ways.
We’re inclined to think of gods as descended from on high, out of the clouds, so it’s disconcerting when they arise out of the murky depths beneath the surface, as the gill man does. We associate the underworld from which del Toro’s nightmarish looking fairytale creatures emerge more with notions of hell and damnation. But given the director’s own Mexican origins, he may be attempting to work in a subtle geographical shift in our conception of Northern (upperworld) enlightenment and South of the border (underworld) darkness and endangerment, as topsy turvy a concept as Argentine director Juan Diego Solanas gave us in Upside Down. Having been appropriated from the Amazon river basin, this ancient mariner’s origins seem as murky as his Creature from the Black Lagoon inspiration. But having himself emigrated from a fabled land sectioned somewhere on the world stage between its pre-Colombian past and industrialized present, del Toro positions this fellow stranger in a strange land as the quintessential alien immigrant, impounded by the government for illegally crossing the border, caged, beaten, water boarded.
Jacinto in The Devil’s Backbone was referred to as ‘a little prince without a kingdom.’ And Ofelia rose from the dead at the end of Pan’s Labyrinth to rule over a kingdom that was not of this world. The director drops similar hints like Easter eggs throughout The Shape of Water, as clear as the wet footprints of “the one who sighs.” Giles claims to have seen a mermaid once in a carnival tent (“It was a monkey sewn to the tail of a fish. It looked real to me.”), while it’s conveyed that orphaned Elisa, whose surname ‘Esposito’ is Latin for placed outside or exposed to the elements, herself was found by the river, in the water, much as the creature himself was “dragged… out of the river muck of South America.” Exiled from her undersea world, we’re well aware that Hans Christian Anderson’s own Little Mermaid, having forfeited fins for feet, likewise forsook the power of speech.
Rather than restoring Elisa’s voice however, the creature does her one better by turning the three scars on her neck into vestigial gills, to serve the purpose one presumes, for which they were always intended. Water, as the source of life, ends up bringing Elisa back, same as it had the creature, restoring her soul and validating this whale of a fish tale’s wildest fantasy by proving her to indeed have been the lost fairytale mermaid we’d suspected all along, explaining why she felt such soulful communion with the frog man as kindred spirits. With Elisa, who wears butterfly broaches to symbolize metamorphosis, The Shape of Water again offers us the parable of an enchanted princess who must be returned to the imaginary throne over which she was given dominion in some golden, glory age, a faint ancestral remembrance of an ideal utopia lost to the mists of time, a legendary Atlantis. Hair waving in the current like living seaweed, as Elisa sinks down, down, down like Holly Hunter’s mute Ada, we’re reminded of another poem, that closed the lid on The Piano –
There is a silence where hath been no sound,
There is a silence where no sound may be,
In the cold grave – under the deep deep sea