When I was growing up, my brother was obsessed with the monster movies that Universal Studios made in the early 20th century. I can attest that we’ve seen his favorite, “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” over 100 times. Because these movies have been so burned into my childhood memories, I often find it very difficult to find a comparable new “creature” film. However, Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is all that and more.
Even before we meet the “creature,” Alexandre Desplat’s score of flutes, harps and accordions frames Elisa’s (played by Sally Hawkins) daily commute on the bus through the emerald-tinted cityscape. Set in an alternate 1960s Baltimore, “The Shape of Water” displays numerous tropes of both the horror and romantic comedy genres, such as when Elisa offers an egg to the “creature” and he places his hand slowly and sweetly over hers to show that they are becoming better acquainted. Such a moment would cause the audience to groan except for the fact that this film exists in such a hybridized state, bearing the outer shell of a creature feature but the inner heart of a romance. Del Toro has captured the veiled social commentary of James Whale’s horror films and Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” while evoking the whimsical naiveté of “Amélie” or a Chaplin romantic comedy.
Del Toro has approached this film with the same passion for mythology that his other works, particularly “Pan’s Labyrinth,” embrace. However, while “The Shape of Water” constructs this mystery around the nature of the “creature” and creates a setting akin to the Emerald City, it also shatters the squeaky-clean nostalgia with which we view 1950s/60s America. First of all, the film gives a voice to marginalized communities both of that time and of today. Elisa is mute and uses sign language. Her two best friends are Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a Black woman, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay man.
The character who does fit this rigid interpretation of the American Dream is Strickland (Michael Shannon), a military official and “model citizen” with two children, a nice house in the suburbs and a fancy Cadillac. In this narrative, however, he is the antagonist. Strickland is destructive to anything that isn’t homogenous and preaches stereotypical American idealism. Perhaps Strickland is a commentary on today’s current political climate, giving the audience a taste of when America was supposedly “great.”
If anything shows a departure from assumptions, it’s the character of the “creature.” While Strickland frequently others him by calling him “the asset,” the audience sees someone who may not be human but does seem to have feelings. The film takes it a step further, though, in his relationship with Elisa. We witness these characters in moments of intimacy that make him more than an object of her desire, but a sentient being who shows equal capacity for empathy. Elisa reminds the other characters throughout that he is more than just a fish-thing; he means something to her.
None of the actors have big names or legions of followers, but each is able to capture the mixture of truth and likeability that makes a role jump from the script and into a living, breathing character. The four main actors, Hawkins, Spencer, Jenkins and Shannon, have consistently given strong performances, and this film allows each to show their talent. I’m a bit partial toward Michael Stuhlbarg, who played Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, but that’s mainly because I’m still in awe over that final monologue from “Call Me by Your Name.” And then there’s Doug Jones as the “creature.” He’s one of those actors who appears in everything and yet never receives proper attention.
It’s difficult to pin down whether “The Shape of Water” deserved the Oscar for Best Picture. This year’s nominees featured a variety of important films such as “Get Out” and “Lady Bird.” Based on how the other award ceremonies went, however, it was between this film and Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” While I am a huge McDonagh fan, as an overall production, it makes sense that “The Shape of Water” won. Both films have their flaws, especially when it comes to representation. “Three Billboards” speaks about police brutality and yet it tokenizes the black characters as sidekicks without personality and makes jokes about racial profiling.
“The Shape of Water” struggles with representation as well. It’s very difficult to find representation for the mute community in film. To my knowledge, the most significant mute character was Holly Hunter’s character in “The Piano.” However, that was 1993, and Holly Hunter isn’t mute in real life. Neither is Sally Hawkins. This makes the question of representation in “The Shape of Water” very difficult to tackle and not something that can easily be resolved. However, unlike “Three Billboards,” “The Shape of Water” at least evinces a sense of greater awareness of the role marginalized voices deserve by making Elisa the protagonist.
The “Shape of Water” can be addressed in two different ways: on the surface and allegorically. If one chooses the first method, then they get to watch what would happen if “Free Willy” or “E.T” were a rom-com. However, if one chooses the latter method, this film is about those that belong and deserve to be heard in a world that too often silences them.