Review: THE SHAPE OF WATER Is The Salve For 2017
“How are people going to react to this?” was a thought that came to my mind when I was watching The Shape of Water. Cynicism has shaped our cultural subconscious over this past year, and hell, we’ve got a lot to be cynical for. But as we approach 2018, can our cynicism sustain us for another year like a Gen X’er bemoaning the days of DKNY and Mudhoney? Can we really keep wallowing in our own self-pity, hating ourselves for getting a morbid kick out of the pitfalls that this year has lead us to? No. We can’t. Trolls will be trolls, but, at least for this writer, we’re getting sick of it. We need to go into the new year positively, knowing that while we’ve hit a roadblock to progression that we will soldier on and create the tide of change we know we can achieve. And so too do we need films to reflect this, in some ways not being blind to the world, but approaching it anew. A biting refocus. And on the precipice of a new year, Guillermo Del Toro has hopefully gifted us a new way of looking at life in The Shape of Water.
The film opens on a tableau of a picture perfect home floating aimlessly in a mass of water. Ghostly chairs hang in suspension around a table as the narration of Giles (Richard Jenkins, at a career best) poetically sets the stage like a Shakespearean tragedy, and our heroin Eliza Esposito floats feet above a bed. As she gradually descends from this dream, we are jolted into the reality of Eliza’s daily routines. Like yours and mine, but different. Sally, while she can see and hear, has been rendered mute from birth. But the impeccable Sally Hawkins does not need the spoken word to convey her thoughts. In many scenes she barely needs sign language, despite it being used remarkably well by Hawkins within the film. We don’t need to hear Eliza to understand her. And it’s this truth that fuels the connection when Eliza finally encounters The Asset (Doug Jones, again, delivering hit after hit).
The Amphibious Creature, as he is credited, is a sentient intelligent being (this is a very important point to remember) that was worshipped as a God in South America, where he was plucked from by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who has a vendetta against the creature. It was around this point in the film that I had to pop out of myself for a moment to realize that yes, this is a Creature from the Black Lagoon film. Guillermo Del Toro’s genesis with the Universal Classic Monster franchise has been written about for years, many times with the high potentiality of Del Toro getting to finally bring his vision of The Creature to life. And while Del Toro himself said that he was given the proverbial keys to the Universal Monster castle, his Creature never came to fruition. But it has, and it’s this film. It’s very thinly veiled but from the origins of The Asset to design to the fluid animalistic movement by Jones, this is the closest we have ever come to recapturing the spirit of these classic films. Except, in Del Toro’s case, since he couldn’t do his Creature, he made the next best thing: a sequel that’s scrubbed any reference to the iconic Universal creation. The Shape Of Water is a film we may not have ever seen, as Del Toro may not have been given such a chance to explore a further aspect of the character if, as we’ve seen with this year's The Mummy, it was shackled my studio influence and drowned at the origin story. In terms of Universal though what Del Toro has crafted feels as important in the pantheon of monster cinema as James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein.
What’s most fascinating to note though was that while Del Toro’s film is full of whimsy and early Jean Pierre Jeunet magical realism, it’s not afraid to go there. And by “go there”, I mean the Del Toro does not let you walk away from the film wondering if the relationship between Eliza and The Asset is sexual. It is, we discover, through a hilarious exchange between Eliza and her friend Zelda (the always delightful Octavia Spencer). When the film finally addressed the sexuality of the Creature, it elicited a lot of giggles in my auditorium. And for good reason, it’s pretty wild to see a film that holds the type of weight and gravity that a new Del Toro film does, feature a relationship like this since, I dunno, Jim Wynorski’s The Return of Swamp Thing? You expect the sort of thing in a Wynorski film, but with Del Toro you anticipate him (or at least his financiers) to perhaps pull that punch a little bit. Not feed into the myriad of juvenile jokes populating horror comment sections already surround the film. But he didn’t, because it’s necessary. Without ever calling it by name, Del Toro weaves so much current social commentary into this tragic romance of two people that cannot be together in the world they live in. The allegory is a little on the nose, but the truths still hit home. The monsters aren’t those that live in the shadows or the depths of the ocean, but the soda jerk or the four star general. And without suffocating, or alienating, his audience he presents this dark time in history simply: in the 1960’s it was pure hate that segregated our nation. Not politics or issues, or historical talking points, but hate. The opposite of what Del Toro views as the salve for our society: love.
It’s also important to note, because I’m sure it will come up in some worthless corner of the Internet, about the allegory of the sexual relationship in the film specifically related to discussions with groups who don’t believe in egalitarian rights for POC and LGTBQ+ people. The classic argument for the religious right when debating same sex marriage is that, if we “redefine marriage”, what will stop people from marrying an animal like a horse or their pet dog? Apart from being an informal fallacy, it doesn’t take into consideration, as I mentioned above, the sentient intelligence of The Asset. When the Religious Right tries to make these slippery slope points, they fail to understand that there is a large difference between an intelligent being that can give consent and an animal who cannot. And a Creature with god like powers who has shown signs of high intelligence from moment one that we meet it is quite different than your doggo who still falls for the “Invisible Ball/Fetch” trick. While a sexual relationship between the two characters may make you squirm in your seat, it doesn’t mean that Del Toro is advocating Mr. Ed themed weddings.
And I don’t know if Del Toro had to fight to make the relationship sexual or not, but I am simply ecstatic that he did. Us lovers of the genre are accustomed to seeing stories that range as wild as the old “Girl Meets Fish-God” yarn, but to see it nestled into a film that is already being considered for numerous awards (on top of what they have already achieved) is absolutely astounding. The artists that grew up alongside us in the video store aisles are putting their childhood joys and love on the screen. Let’s take that love into the New Year.