Supposedly, Guillermo del Toro saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon as a child and was disappointed that, at the film’s conclusion, the titular creature (also called Gill Man) was killed in a hail of bullets. This isn’t such an unusual reaction to have, given that the film borrowed some rhetorical resonance from the “Beauty and the Beast” archetypes, and hoping that the film would follow through on that emotional thread and show the monster and his beloved achieving a kind of happily ever after isn’t that unreasonable. He sought out to correct that perceived mistake, and although it may have taken some time, he’s finally managed to put right what once went wrong with sci-fi/love story/1960s period piece The Shape of Water.
Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely, mute night janitor working for Occam Aerospace Research Center in early sixties Baltimore. She is but one face in a multitude of such women, which also includes her talkative friend Delilah (Octavia Spencer), who fills the silence between the two women with stories about her home life with Bruce, the husband who causes her no end of old-school domestic strife comedy. Elisa’s is a life of precision that’s just a step out of sync with the rest of the world: instead of rising in the morning, she wakes at precisely the same time each night after the sun has set and makes the same egg-heavy breakfast meals day after day (or, rather, night after night). She also looks after her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man in his late fifties, whose intricate and perfect illustrations for advertisements have made him an unemployed dinosaur in the time of the rise of photo ads.
Elisa and Giles share a love of the divas of old Hollywood with their elaborate dance numbers and heightened emotions, which echoes the void in both of their love lives. Elisa has never fallen for anyone, and any love that may have touched Giles in his youth has long since slipped into the abyss of time. This doesn’t stop him from developing a schoolboy crush on the counter operator of a franchise pie restaurant (Morgan Kelly), but Elisa’s loneliness seems to have come to an end when Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives at Occam with the “Asset” (Doug Jones), a being that is, for lack of a better term, a fishman. Elisa meets this strange creature when it takes a bite out of Strickland’s left hand and she and Delilah are called upon to mop up the blood. The two develop a bond over music and their mutual inability to express themselves verbally, until the Army orders the Asset vivisected for science. Elisa and her compatriots (along with sympathetic scientist–and secret Russian spy–Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg) must find a way to save the fishman from the real monsters.
I’m a big fan of del Toro’s, as is likely evident from the fact that two of his films, Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, were my favorite horror films of their respective release years. He knows how to take a tired concept like European vampires or fairy tales and suffuse them with a new energy and vitality, even if he does so by looking backward through time. As such, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this isn’t exactly the most original of premises. A more dismissive reviewer or critic might call this a greatest hits compilation of plot threads from movies and TV shows like E.T. (both in the bonding between human and not, and the The government will cut you up!” angle), Hidden Figures (given that the facility is explicitly aerospace and features the presence of Spencer), Mad Men (in that both works hold a mirror up to the culture of the fifties/sixties as a reminder that to romanticize this time is to ignore many of the prevailing toxic attitudes of the time), and most heist films that you can name. That doesn’t make this film any less ambitious, however, nor does it negate the validity of the emotional reaction that the film evokes.
It’s not just the richness of the narrative text that’s laudable here, either, but the depth of the subtext as well, which even a casual del Toro viewed likely expects. I’ve been a fan of Richard Jenkins ever since his Six Feet Under days (even though it’s not one of his lines, my roommate and I quote Ruth Fischer’s “Your father is dead, and my pot roast is ruined” to each other every time one of us scorches something while cooking), and he tackles this role with a kind of giddy glee that fills the heart with warmth. There’s magic in his every moment on screen, even if his shallow adoration for the pie slinger comes across as a little rushed, narratively speaking, and there’s an understated desperation in his interactions with his former co-worker Bernard (Stewart Arnott). There’s enough of a hint that technological progress is not the only thing that cost Giles his position, and a nuanced tenderness to the dialogue between him and Bernard that hints that there may have been something between them in the past. It’s sweet and heartbreaking all at once.
Strickland is a villain in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Captain Vidal: a terrifyingly familiar figure of fascistic adherence to a nationalistic, ethnocentric, exploitative, and phallocentric worldview. Whereas Vidal was the embodiment of Fascist Spain and its ideals, Strickland is the ideal embodiment of sixties-era Red Pill morality: a racist, self-possessed sexual predator empowered by his workplace superiority. Strickland is a man who professes Christian values out of the left side of his mouth while joking about cheating on his wife and threatening to sexually assault his underlings out of the right side. He mansplains the biblical origins of Delilah’s name to her while, for the sake of her job and perhaps her safety, she plays along with his assumptions of her ignorance. This is above and beyond his inhumane (and pointless) torture of the Asset, an intelligent being that he cannot recognize as sentient because of his own prejudices and assumptions about the world.
Shannon is fantastic here, as he brings real, discomfiting menace to his performance in much the same way that Sergi López did as Vidal, including the arrogance of unquestioning adherence to an ideal that privileges oneself at the expense of others. This underlines the importance of this mirroring of characters as a rhetorical strategy: although Pan’s Labyrinth wasn’t created with an American audience in mind, U.S. viewers could reject Vidal and his violence as being part of a different time and place, distancing themselves from his ideologies. Not so with Strickland, who lifts this veil of enforced rhetorical distance and highlights the fact that idealizing and period of the American past is nothing more than telling oneself a lie about history. It’s a powerful punch in the face of the fascist ideologies that are infiltrating our daily lives bit by bit to see such a horrible villain (admittedly/possibly a bit of a caricature, but with good reason) come undone and be overcome. It’s a further tonic to the soul to see him defeated by an alliance comprised of the “other”: a “commie,” a woman of color, a woman with a physical disability, and an older queer man.
I could be undermining that thesis by ending this review here without highlighting or praising Hawkins or Spencer’s performances, but we’re over 1200 words already, and you should stop wasting time reading this and just go see the film. Let it lift your spirit as it lifted mine.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond