Despite the misleading title, the Oscar win, and all that soppy, emotional marketing, you’d probably be surprised to learn that The Shape of Water is actually a heist movie. It’s sees a motley crew of would-be thieves assembled to steal an unusual amphibious man held hostage in a secret 60’s Cold War lab. Can a mute cleaner, a Russian spy and a gay artist prevail against the might of the American government? Well you’ll have to read on.
We begin in the dreams of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins – Godzilla). She’s an unusual, lonely sort, with a strange affinity for water. So much so that within minutes of waking from her dream about living in a house under the sea (like Spongebob), she proceeds to take a bath and frig herself off whilst up to her neck in steaming water. While boiling her breakfast egg too. That’s efficient multi-tasking.
Yeah, we’re set up for this being an unusual film right from the beginning. Any Guillermo del Toro neophytes will probably be put on the back-foot by this brave opening. If you’ve seen his earlier, non-Hollywood stuff like The Orphanage or Pan’s Labyrinth (dat ending), you’ll be more prepared to find our main character masterbating furiously within the first ten minutes of the movie.
Any way, Elisa lives in an apartment above a huge, old-style, gold-gilded movie theater, sadly devoid of patrons in these fearful Cold War times. From her spacious (if run down) flat she can hear the explosions from the war films, and the songs from the musicals. But alas she can’t sing along. Scars across her neck loosely explain her profound mutism. As an orphan child, all we know of these mysterious scars is that they were there when she was found “by the water”. Instead she communicates via sign language. She lives opposite Giles (Richard Jenkins – Cabin in the Woods), a closeted artist who is struggling to adapt in the advertising world which is moving away from traditional paintings to photographs.
Together they talk about music and dancing and life in general. A particular recent fancy by Giles is a local employee of a themed diner. Every day he goes and buys some radioactive green key lime pie from this guy, who is oblivious to Giles’ affections. Giles, the poor sod, mistakes Pie Guy’s polite and interested manner for a mutual attraction. We can see it’s not going to end well.
Day-to-day Elisa works as a cleaner at a secret government laboratory in the city. She’s a bit of an air-head, but thankfully her well meaning co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer – Snowpiercer) has her back. She loves to gab, and can speak for them both, literally in some cases, as she acts as Elisa’s interpreter.
What is done at the laboratory is never really explained. The focus instead is on Elisa and Zelda, and the various menial tasks they perform. We visits toilets and broom closets, not nuclear missile silos. But there’s lots of people in white coats, machines with large dials and knobs on them, and suited G-men running about.
The head of security for the facility is a feckless, flacid sort of bloke called Fleming. I immediately recognized him as David Hewlett or Rodney from Stargate Atlantis, or as I like to call it, Stargate Rodney. Now I have a peripheral knowledge of Stargate Rodney because my girlfriend seems to like it (most likely because it also features Jason Mamoa) and I call it thus because every episode is seemingly about Rodney and what kind of stupid shit he gets up to. I’d be cool with that if he the main guy. But he’s not. Instead he’s merely billed as “also starring David Hewlett as Dr. Rodney”. You only supposed to the get the “and featuring” or “with” if you’re a cinema legend or barely in any of the episodes. I suspect he was rimjobbing the writer/director/producer of the show. Fuck, he could have been writing it for all I know.
Thankfully Fleming/Rodney barely commands anything here, including much screentime. But he’s also really well cast as the useless security dude who couldn’t secure a grasp on his ass with both hands. He’s quickly superseded by the menacing Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon – Man of Steel), a marine colonel who has been to hell and back to find his latest prize – a mysterious man-sized creature (Doug Jones – Hellboy) contained within a tank of water.
Having swapped his army stripes for the black suit of the CIA man, Strickland’s last mission was to the deep dark of uncivilized South America, hunting myths and legends about a man who lives in water and is revered as a god by local tribesmen. Having caught the unique creature, he’s brought it back to the US to be studied. But he hates it, despite the promotion it’s earned him. He see’s it as an affront to the natural order, to God himself.
The creature doesn’t like him either, and when given the opportunity, manages to bite the bottom two fingers off Strickland’s left hand. Thankfully he’s left with his “thumb, trigger and pussy fingers”. Having witnessed the aftermath of the attack, Elisa is sworn to secrecy and tasked with the cleaning of the creature’s room. Strickland see’s it as a double-whammy, as even if those pesky Russians ever were to get their hands on Elisa, she wouldn’t be able to blab anything (you know, being a mute and all).
Speaking of Russians, they’ve managed to sneak one into the base disguised as leading scientist. Dimitri Mosenkov or Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg – Doctor Strange) as he’d preferred to be known is there to steal whatever he can for the Motherland, before he’s extracted by his vodka-drinking handlers. He sees unlimited potential in the amphibious creature, but not as something for his country to take advantage of. He sees it as a unique specimen, whose existence should be treasured not studied or used as some political chit.
Strickland on the other hand revels in torturing the creature. Even after his fingers (handily found by Elisa) are surgically re-attached, he still holds a grudge. As was endemic of the times, there is a genuine fear of the Soviets stealing technology and research from the Americans, and they’d rather destroy any opportunity for deeper understanding of the world than explore it, just so the Russians don’t make those leaps first. A foolish way of thinking, for sure.
He doesn’t see the potential in the amphibious man, whom demonstrates the ability to rapidly heal himself of injury. But Strickland fears the beast, and suspects Hoffstetler’s true motives. In a perverse battle of authority, he recommends the creature be vivisected, despite the scientists insistence they can learn more from it alive. General Frank Hoyt, an old war buddy of Strickland, agrees that it should be destroyed.
By this time, Elisa has developed somewhat of a relationship with the creature. It starts with her feeding it hard-boiled eggs, which it laps up. This progresses to her playing music in the huge holding room whilst she cleans or takes her break. Despite the inability to communicate vocally, they begin to speak via her sign language, and it demonstrates that the fish-man has a high level of intelligence, indeed a sentience of his own. When Hoffstetler witnesses this, it galvanizes his desire to keep it alive. Elisa doesn’t want the creature to die either, as the bond they’ve developed starts to grow ever deeper. She confesses to Giles that it’s “beautiful” and not just an animal. Giles doesn’t really get it, but after being hatefully rebuked by Pie Guy and fired from his on-off freelancer art position, realizes Elisa is all he has and offers to help.
Together they concoct a plan to break the creature out of the lab. Using her knowledge of the facility, as well as her ability to blend into the background, she plans to hide it in a laundry cart. Giles has converted his van into a pickup for the creature, using his art skills to forge his ID and the laundry companies logo. The plan is sound but naturally goes awry when Strickland realizes his prize is missing and and that an unscheduled visit to the facility is being made. Thankfully Zelda and Hoffstetler come to Elisa’s aid and they manage to escape.
Elisa, now left alone with the amphibious man, really starts to fall for him. Sexy shared baths become a thing. But at work she still maintains the facade of ignorance, despite Strickland’s growing suspicions. He’s under a load of pressure now from the General. Hoffstetler, having used Russian technology to assist the breakout, has put the fear of God into everyone, especially the general. Strickland is at the pointy end of that fear and frustration. He needs to get the creature back immediately, otherwise that promotion he’s been given is gone, and he and his nuclear family will be posted to Alaska or the ass-end of some other buck-fuck place. To make matters worse, the surgery to re-attach his fingers hasn’t worked. They’ve become blackened and rotted, like his soul. He’s gonna have to use his good hand to start squeezing some people for answers.
Meanwhile, the man isn’t doing so well at Elisa’s. He eats one of Giles’ cats, butis becoming weak due to the fact he’s not having much watery contact. The rains are due in a matter of days, and Elisa’s initial plan to return fish-dude to the wilds via a canal (currently dried up) are weighing heavy on her mind. She knows it’s the right thing to do. But she’s fallen in love with him, and knows that a sacrifice of sorts is going to be made. Will she be able to let him go? Will Strickland find him first? What will fish-man decide to do himself?…the end is certainly worth a watch.
The Shape of Water has cleaned up at this years awards ceremony. It’s won it’s writer/director his first Oscar, which is a grand validation of a unique and long career in cinema. But I don’t think this is his best film. Guillermo del Toro, I’d describe, has made a mixed bag of films. I believe his original Spanish language movies to be his best, with Pan’s Labryinth representing the pinnacle of his abilities. This is contrasted by his more “Hollywood” work being far more restrained and “cookie-cutter”. Blade 2 is certainly a departure from the fantastic first movie, and Pacific Rim, while fun, is as cerebrally nourishing as a salad. The Hellboy films succeed, I think, primarily thanks to the giant charisma of lead actor Ron Perlman (a regular collaborator with del Toro).
So similar to Martin Scorsese’s win for The Departed, del Toro’s best director Oscar has certainly been earned, only awarded for the wrong film. The Shape of Water is certainly a return to form, where he has been given much more control over what he’s wanted to do. It’s reflected in the budget (it cost $19m compared to Pacific Rim’s $190m), and as an unusual science-fiction-stroke-romance-slash-heist flick, I can’t think of any better. The central conceit of two people falling in love and making it work is hardly original. Beauty & the Beast, Splash, King Kong, even Her all pose the question of people find non-human love. The Shape of Water just takes it to darker and more physical levels.
The creature is hardly lovable in appearance. Many people mistook this for a sort of origin story for Hellboy’s intellectual buddy, Abe Sapien, as the make up seems very similar. They’re both also played by Doug Jones, and well played too. In the first Hellboy movie, Abe was voiced by Frasier star David Hyde Pierce. Out of respect for Jones’ performance, Hyde Pierce refused to take a credit. Indeed, Jones took up the voice for the sequel. Here he brings a much wilder feel to the creature. He’s a beast from the wilds. He eats cats for God’s sake.
So it’s not like Princess Leia choosing Chewbacca over Han Solo. He isn’t cuddly. He’s dangerous. Perhaps that is part of the attraction. His fascination for Elisa dampens his animal instincts, while the social barriers that have constrained her are in turn broken down thanks to her deepening feelings for him. The fact he can make these decisions demonstrates a more human intelligence. He doesn’t ravage her like a barbarian. He caresses her instead. If it weren’t for Elisa, he would have remained a creature until death.
She’s kind of curious, kind of out of place. But never downtrodden or miserable. She’s almost perky, despite there being something missing from her life. She looks wistfully out at the rain of her daily bus ride. In this day and age, I could hear the outroar had that emotional void be filled by a mere man. As if some dude can solve all her problems. And to be fair, sometimes all it takes is love to fill those gaps. del Toro smartly dances around the thorny feminist minefield by having her fall for a fish-creature instead.
This is an especially brave performance from Sally Hawkins, and she more than rises to the challenge. Considering the nudity, a sex scene and the lack of dialogue involved, a lesser actress would not be able to pull it off. She has a beautifully expressive face, with her eyes speaking far more deeply than a voice ever could. While Jones doesn’t have to get his fish dick out (despite the cries online), his job was no less difficult, having to couple the wildness of a beast with the tenderness of a lover. He too has no voice, and only the remarkable make up (realized by sculptor Mike Hill and creature veteran Shane Mahan) and physical acting skills he’s honed over decades in the business. Christ, considering he and Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings) are perhaps the two greatest living actors who seem to specialize in this suit work, they either must be great friends or the greatest of enemies.
Most of the effects were completed in camera, which I think really aids the connection between the two leads. CG was only used to enhance certain elements (such as his phosphorescent glowing), which I highly approve of. The set design is also very well realized, considering the limited budget. I also feel it lends a lot from the Bioshock video games. The interior of the base reminiscent of Bioshock’s undersea world, Rapture, which features a 1940’s design. Also note that most of the media has seemingly ignored the fact that there are now numerous calls for plagiarism against The Shape of Water. I’ll take these with a pinch of salt. Any would-be writer who has been around for a while will inevitably see their idea on the big screen if they don’t sit down and write it first. It’s happened to me. It’ll happen to them.
The central performances are really well balanced by the support cast. While I felt Giles (who is wonderfully brought to life by the ever-lovable Richard Jenkins) really had a generic “gay arc”, he supports and loves Elisa, and reinforces the notion that this forbidden love can work. “He’s beautiful” he remarks, when he finally sees the amphibious man. This is contrasted so darkly by Michael Shannon, who seems deemed to forever play great, maniacal bastards. I thought that he brought his insane best to the fore as Zod (kneel before him) in Man of Steel, but he really is a show stopper in The Shape of Water. His cruel hatred of the creature, along with his perverse fascination with Elisa, cast him as the typical Christian neo-conservative of the era. Only this guy has a gun and some authority, making him far more dangerous. As his re-attached fingers turn to black, he in turn is twisted into a creature of anger and disgust. This represents an ironic role reversal with the amphibious man, whom transforms from a wild beast to a loving person whom can communicate.
Regardless of all the above ass kissing, I can’t say it’s a perfect film. I felt the song and dance number (yes, there is a song and dance number), was a huge misstep. The creature doesn’t wear a tux, thank fuck, but it was still very jarring for me. The music also felt out of place. It was almost too silly, too…French. Like what you’d find in Amelie or something. Now I like Amelie, but no one gets shot in the face in that. Thankfully, del Toro is very adept at juxtaposing the unusual, the bizarre and the often downright stupid with moments of intense darkness. Here, the romance elements are tempered with sequences of vivid violence. Beauty & the Beast this ain’t, so I can forgive these little issues.
As far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been a more prominent film that has tackled the thorny issue of bestiality. But while you’re watching the film it’s hardly something you even consider. The ending (which I won’t spoil) does kind of explain a potential reason for the attraction, but I felt this was unnecessary. Instead, I totally accepted that this mute woman can fall for this fish guy. Perhaps it resonates with our recent times, where physical appearance or traditional gender identity seems to matter less and less with each passing day. Considering the Oscar win, and the fact that no one seems to be shocked or outraged at the premise of inter-species love, I guess I’m not alone in buying in to the fact that this could happen. Maybe it’s as Doug Jones himself describes; “it’s not a story about sex at all. It’s a story about love and finding it in unforeseen places”. Get it watched.