Published on January 31st, 2018 | by Craig Silliphant0
The Shape of Water
Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water comes out swinging with 13 Oscar nominations. It’s deserving of the hype — a brilliant, though sometimes flawed, film.
The opening of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water made me think I’d be in for a whimsical tale, with perhaps a little bit of a dark side. But pretty quickly into the film, as a nude Sally Hawkins began to masturbate in a bathtub, I knew this was definitely not going to be my Grandma’s Amélie. Of course, I don’t want to make it sound too lurid, and it is indeed whimsical, but let’s just say the movie isn’t afraid to go certain places. In fact, one of the most brilliant things that The Shape of Water achieves is balance between the light and the dark. It’s nostalgic for the early 60s, or perhaps even, for the idea of film in those years, but it’s also compellingly modern in its sensibilities.
It captures the magic and grandeur of a classic Hollywood film from that era, but it also feels very current because of its violence and even how it addresses certain subjects like homosexuality, sexism, or racism. It also has something to say about the changing world, then and now, with notions of technological change and globalization, whether in the advertising world or in the rise of chain restaurants. Suffice to say, the backdrop for the story has enough depth for a full-sized Fish Man of some sort to swim around in comfortably.
Fish Man, you say? I guess he’s called Amphibian Man in the IMDB credits. The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a member of the custodial staff at a top secret government installation. She is present when agents bring the Amphibian Man into custody. She feels a deep empathy for him, setting events into motion. If Amphibian Man reminds you of Abe Sapien from del Toro’s adaptation of Hellboy, I’m with you. The fish men from both movies are even played by the same actor, Doug Jones (he’s great as Saru on Star Trek: Discovery as well).
There are some things that bothered me about the movie that I can’t really get into without spoilers, so I’ll do a little spoiler section after the review (I also have a theory about the ending I’ll talk about there. You’re safe to keep reading though, until you see the big spoiler warning).
One of the things that bothered me that I can talk about is Elise’s motivation for forcing herself into Amphibian Man’s chamber. Is it because she’s insatiably curious? Has she always been this relentlessly curious, since she was a girl, or is there just something about a mysterious container full of water that sends her into the throes of nosiness? They don’t really explain this or show it as a character trait before she dives in with both feet. She even sees a guy get his fingers bitten off by what is probably a horrifying Black Lagoon creature, but it doesn’t seem to faze her.
I know anyone would be curious about this, but come on; you work in a weird government installation. You probably signed a non-disclosure agreement. Show some professional decorum. And maybe I’m a coward, but if I saw a fish man’s webbed hand pounding on tank glass, they’d have to medicate me and force me to even go in that room again. Let some other chump do the mopping.
Sure, later, once they’ve met, they explain why Elisa is drawn to him, which is sort of glossed over, but makes perfect sense; they’re both ‘freaks.’ Fine. But the only reason she gets obsessed with him off the top, before she even sees what he is, is because the script needs her to.
The script also needs Michael Shannon to be really bad at his job (he’s in charge of security), even though they make a point of playing up how excellent he is at what he does. Amphibian Man is arguably one of the greatest assets to American supremacy the government has ever had. Heck, you’d think that the custodial staff would have an armed guard while they’re cleaning in there, not to mention a 24-hour guard over Amphibian Man himself. But Elise manages to spend her nights secretly hanging out in his restricted chamber, having vinyl dance parties and hand feeding each other eggs. It seems as though Shannon turns off the wall of CCTV monitors and slides down the dinosaur for the night at five, along with any other security people in the building. Apparently, if you get past the one night guard turd at the front gate, bring your hi-fi set up, because it’s an all night Enchantment Under the Sea dance party. Like Career Opportunities, but in a government installation instead of a Target store.
It might have made more sense and added to the adventure and tension if Elisa had to trick some guard every night to sneak in. Or if Shannon’s sexism and hubris was so high that he didn’t care if Elise was in contact with Fish Man. But he makes a point of forbidding her to screw around in there, and he even watches her all the time like a creep. You know, except for when she happens to be partying with Mr. Fish. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but these things pulled me out of the movie.
But let’s hit refresh — I really did like this movie quite a bit. The look of the film is wonderful, flashes of colour peeking from dark shadows, fluid camerawork that gives the story a feeling of movement. As I said, the film invokes the look of a classic Hollywood picture, but with a certain realism as well. The music was great, cinematic in an old-fashioned way that supports the old Hollywood look, though it was cloying in places, stepping on the occasional scene.
The cast is amazing, led by Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones, with Michael Shannon as Strickland bringing that quiet menace that he does so well (perhaps channeling his Van Alden character from Boardwalk Empire a bit). Michael Stuhlbarg (not bringing much from his Boardwalk Empire character) is great as a conflicted scientist who sometimes cowers and sometimes finds his spine. Octavia Spenser’s character feels like an outdated stereotype, but Spenser does what she can with it as Elisa’s comic relief friend. Canadian actor David Hewlett is also funny as the brown-nosing Fleming. And of course, one can’t forget the amazing Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s aging roommate, Giles. A great cast like this helps you sink into the fantasy of the film, and even sells it when some of the issues I mentioned crop up.
Like most del Toro movies, this is about monsters, using the common del Toro flip — some monsters may look ugly on the outside, but the scariest ones are ugly on the inside. In this case, he’s exploring tolerance and the idea of being decent to each other. The general in charge of the government program notes that America sells the concept of decency as part of the fabric of the American dream. They talk about it, they make Capra movies about it, they push it in advertising — they sell decency because they have so much to spare. Not because there’s an overabundance of decency, but, he says, “Because we don’t use it.”
The Shape of Water is a nuanced film that balances a lot of different ideas well. To be honest, while I love everything del Toro stands for, I don’t actually love a lot of his movies. And while there are del Toro movies I have liked better than this one, I’d say The Shape of Water is one of his best, a superb movie, easily one of the best films of the year. It’s weird, beautiful, and it has a lot of heart (fish and otherwise). The Shape of Water is a movie that shows you the other side of the monster, urging you to use the decency within you whenever you can.
AHOY MATEY! HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
– Uh…fish dick? Ew. Of all the things they did bother to explain, haha. I am not mature enough to handle this, as evidenced by the ‘fish dick’ sign language I kept making to my wife for the rest of the movie.
– The scene of Strickland using his power over Elisa to say creepy things in his office felt very NOW. I don’t know if that was on purpose, it was probably written before #metoo or #timesup, but it was a great scene. As was her eventual ‘fuck you’ rebuttal.
– Okay, so, I wasn’t really buying the scene where they fill up the whole bathroom with water to have sex. I mean, it’s a neat visual and sure, I decided to suspend my disbelief and just go with it, but even having that conversation with myself took me out of the movie. It was just too much fairy tale in a world that was trying to surround the fantastic with some semblance or reality. I mean, seriously, it would take hours to fill that room, but more importantly, it would probably crash through the floor into the theatre below. And where did all that water go? Perhaps this is the very definition of nitpicking but I can’t argue with what pulls me out of a movie. Loved the dancing fantasy though — at least we know this was in her head.
– I apologize if I missed an important piece of information (sometimes this stuff becomes clearer after reading online or repeat viewings), but what was the deal with her scars? They said they found her on the riverbank. Was the implication that the scars used to be gills? Did she used to be a Fish Lady turned human and their finding each other is some kind of fish person fate? Or am I reading way too much into that?
Did he just give her gills at the end and the scars were just meant to be…uh…like, metaphors or something? Did the scars have anything to do with the gills? None of this stuff was well explained, which again, pulled me out of the movie. I don’t need to be hit over the head with it, but the story lacked a simple clarity sometimes. (I will say, other times, it worked well — we only get hints of exposition for Giles, and why he eventually decides to help Elisa — but these scenes were beautifully minimal while also being clear. Him being spun out of his defeated lot in life by her passion was great).
Even if him being able to bring her back to life was a bit of a cheap Deus ex Machina ending (they do literally call him a God several times in the movie), at least it was consistent with what they had already told us. Giving her gills though? I guess I have no choice but to be fine with him having the power to give her gills. It’s a little too convenient, but I mean, they never said he didn’t have that power and we don’t know much about him, so it stands. And calm down, it’s a fairy tale, amirite?
– Okay, confusion and complaining aside (and seriously, I really did like this movie quite a bit, so all my nitpicking and braying about being taken out of the movie are all minor details), I have a theory on the end of the movie:
My theory is that Elisa died in the end. Giles, unsure of what happened when Amphibian Man grabbed her corpse and they went in the water, but knowing he might be able to bring her back to life, put a happy ending on the story he was telling us.
Stick with me here: We know that Giles was narrating the story. He could have been an unreliable narrator. It’s safe to assume he couldn’t see what happened underwater — so he could have been guessing at it, or even making it up. Giles said something to the effect of hoping they lived happily ever after. He may have imagined the whole part where Amphibian Man brought Elise back to life and gave her gills. This also means the whole scar/gill thing doesn’t have to make any sense — it’s just Giles taking creative liberties in his imagination, to make himself feel better, or to turn her story into the immortal stuff of fairy tales.
I haven’t seen anyone else discussing this idea, so maybe it’s a long shot, but it would make more sense and actually, be quite sad and beautiful as well.