In a previous Cultural Column on famous movie monsters last semester, I mentioned the upcoming movie The Shape of Water’s potential to tell a story of radical empathy. Having now seen the film, I can say with certainty that the film delivers on that potential—The Shape of Water is a beautiful tale told with passion, and a massive accomplishment for director del Toro.
The movie blends genres, owing between socially conscious biopic, pre-70s creature feature, romance, and espionage thriller. Nods to other stories abound: Octavia Spencer’s performance parallels her role as an employee at a racist 1960s scientific facility in Hidden Figures, and Cthulhu Mythos fans will observe the film’s deconstruction of a classic Lovecraftian premise—here too we see the marginalized gathering around a god-like being from abroad, but rather than a source of horror, the creature serves as a source of healing, unity, and love. Viewers accustomed to nuclear symbolism in their monster flicks, à la Godzilla, will notice JFK’s speech on the Cuban Missile Crisis playing over the radio in one scene. The movie’s colorful atmosphere and narrative framing device have lead some to call it a postmodern fairy tale. And of course, del Toro’s vision owes a great deal to The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
As The Shape of Water opens, we quickly meet our protagonist, a mute woman named Eliza, played by Sally Hawkins, as she gets ready to go to her job as a janitor at a research lab in 1962. The film never tries to exploit her disability: instead, it’s simply a part of her identity, much like her neighbor Giles’s (Richard Jenkins) identity as a closeted gay man, or her coworker Zelda’s (Octavia Spencer) identity as a black woman. It’s in this quiet manner that del Toro declares his identification with the voiceless—both literal and metaphorical—and his distaste for the bigoted hierarchies embodied by antagonist Colonel Strickland, played by Michael Shannon. While Eliza enjoys her friendships with Giles and Zelda, she’s also lonely; this changes when Strickland and his colleagues bring in an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones) captured in the Amazon, where it (or rather, he) was worshipped as a god. Eliza bonds with “the Asset” over eggs, Benny Goodman records, and silent communication; when Strickland announces his intention to vivisect the strange being, she convinces her friends to help her save him, and, with the aid of Soviet spy Dr. Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, the group smuggles him back to Eliza’s apartment, where a romance soon develops. Strickland, however, becomes increasingly brutal in his search for the escapee.
Such are the bare bones of The Shape of Water, but the joy of this film exists in the relationships between the characters. The story centers on outsiders banding together to resist oppression and find community. The central example of this is Eliza’s relationship with the creature, but there are many others, some as subtle as Eliza signing “fuck you” to Strickland’s uncomprehending face. To complete this tale of resistance and solidarity, Eliza’s response—“if we don’t help him, neither are we”—to Giles’s statement that the creature “isn’t even human,” serves as the film’s raison d’être. The relationships between the characters bind the creature-plot to the social commentary, and send both thundering toward their conclusion.
This isn’t to say the film is perfect. While most of the story’s violence is earned—like the torture scenes, or Strickland’s symbolically rotting fingers—some particularly graphic scenes feel gratuitous. I would also have liked more examination of Hoffstetler’s outsider status as a Russian scientist masquerading as an American; while del Toro does a good job of showing his position as a man of science caught between two military powers, more could have been said about the trials of being an immigrant and, presumably, a Communist only a decade after McCarthyism.
Despite these flaws, The Shape of Water remains an immensely powerful film, nowhere more so than in its ending. In the last few minutes of the film, the creature and Eliza tumble into a canal, and, as the creature places his healing hands over Eliza, gills open along her neck. Air starts to bubble up from her as she begins to breathe underwater, and, as the movie ends, the two lovers float there, their interwoven bodies forming the shape of a heart or, perhaps, a single drop of water.