Loneliness, love, violence, and water.
Set in the early 1960s against a Cold War backdrop, a secret lab in Baltimore, Maryland becomes the staging ground for research of a strange new life form caught in the Amazon: a fish man (Doug Jones). Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) has been tasked to test, assess, and appropriate the creature, a service he feels he owes his country but counts on being well rewarded. Also employed at the lab is a janitor named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a lonely woman with a big heart who was born a mute. Stumbling upon the creature and making a nonverbal connection, Elisa takes it upon herself to care for the so-called monster, but she’ll need the help of all of her friends and then some if she’s to save her aquatic friend from a terrible end.
It isn’t difficult to spot writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s inspiration: The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Like most of del Toro’s work, however, it isn’t the creatures that are monstrous but humanity itself, and this fish tale is no exception. Very little in this film is politically correct, especially since it involves Cold War U.S. vs Soviet policies and world superpowers making decisions for people “for the greater good” and with little thought to the collateral damage to imagined insignificant people. In spite of all of this, The Shape of Water is getting serious awards buzz with Best Picture talk; does a del Toro dark fantasy really stand a chance?
Okay, that was a loaded question since it’s very much after awards season and yes: it won a lot. One reason why is that, of the multitude of movies pitched for awards contention, everyone liked this one right after the “better” film they were championing, allowing it to trickle up. Yes, it’s a monster movie and more than a little horrific, but it’s tempered with fantasy elements and an unhorrorlike ending… although it comes very close. It has the seriousness and innocence of A Monster Calls while indulging in an R-rated adult fantasy romance, an amazing line to walk and all the better for it.
While the story follows leads Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones, they don’t have a lot to actually say, leaving the verbal narrative to the exemplary supporting cast. Struggling artist Giles is brought to life by Richard Jenkins and provides a mirror to Elisa’s missing (and perhaps forbidden) love life. Everyone’s best buddy Octavia Spencer plays Zelda Fuller, keeping Elisa mostly out of trouble at work. Michael Stuhlbarg has the plum role of scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, forced to question his loyalties and whether to do what he knows is right. Does anyone else think it’s typecasting that Doug Jones keeps playing fish folk (see Hellboy for reference).
Other than an oddly placed musical number (clearly a visually realized moment of indulged fantasy), the biggest contention of the film seems to be with Elisa’s sexuality, whether competing with an egg timer in the bath to dreams of taking strange fish men home. In contrast to a clear worldliness and weariness about her, there’s a kindness in Elisa’s character coupled with a decisiveness to pursue what she desires that others mistake for innocence, but they learn better. Maybe everyone could learn a little from Elisa, hmm?
The Shape of Water is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, language, and one sneaky little fish flap.
Four skull recommendation out of four