This review was originally published on Jan. 19, 2018.
E.T. gets his freak on with a harlequin beauty in Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro’s whimsically-shot yet wickedly perverse social justice jackhammer dressed up in adult Disney drag.
It would be entirely disingenuous of me if I didn’t say that Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is one of most visually striking films since Alex Proyas’ “Dark City” or Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie.” If movies were graded solely on their aesthetics, then “The Shape of Water” would get the “Christmas Story” treatment: A+ to infinity.
Unlike the revolving spate of glorified-television-shows-masquerading-as-comic-book-movies or the banal-assembly-line-of-social-justice-sermonizing-mistaken-for-arthouse-fare (*cough* “Moonlight”), “The Shape of Water” is a work of true cinema. From the 1960’s set-pieces to the top-secret underground lairs to the gracefully leaping camera to Sally Hawkins’ vulnerably silent performance, Del Toro has crafted a visual masterpiece.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Del Toro’s story, written in concert with Vanessa Taylor, leaving us with something our senses can’t quite grasp. A story that feels emotionally false, manipulative, hackneyed, and worse, Machiavellian.
The values governing “The Shape of Water” are best summed up as follows: have sex with anything you want, even if that “thing” is not of your species, and kill innocent people to do it . . . Fin! That the film presents this in the guise of a tale about how love conquers all in the face of white male patriarchal oppression makes it all the more insidious.
Del Toro’s story begins in the most idyllic of settings: a loft above a classic movie theater in 1962’s Baltimore. Here we meet our protagonist, a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins in an Oscar-worthy performance), and her closeted homosexual roommate Giles (the always welcome Richard Jenkins).
By those introductions alone, you can guess where the story is headed.
From the outset, Del Toro portrays Elisa as a perfect little social justice saint wandering her way through a maze of white male patriarchal rule, represented here by the one-dimensional Strickland (Michael Shannon). Little need be said about Strickland other than that he uses bible verses to justify his hatred for anyone whose skin is more than two shades white.
In one of those top-secret Cold War facilities, Elisa’s job as a custodian eventually leads her into the presence of a mysterious creature (not from the black lagoon) whom she later befriends.
Like Elisa, we learn little about this creature (brilliantly rendered by Del Toro veteran Doug Jones), except that he hails from the Amazon where the natives worshipped him as a god, can breathe outside of water for a time, and has the ability to heal people with the touch of his hand. Whether or not the creature has a soul, the movie leaves unaddressed, though it does have the limited ability to communicate via sign language and connect emotionally with humans to the point of — how should I put this? — getting wet and wild with them.
Eventually, Elisa enlists the help of a friendly Soviet spy (Michael Stuhlbarg) to help the creature escape, presumably to avoid being dissected for research. Here the movie wilfully plunges into dark territories as it more than just implies the creature’s survival should come at the cost of human life. As Elisa smuggles him to safety, the Soviet spy murders an innocent guard.
Some might be quick to say that Elisa bears no responsibility for the guard’s murder since she could not predict the actions of a Soviet spy. However, the movie shreds that assumption to pieces when Elisa later refers to him as a “good man.”
The innocent guard remains nameless, as Del Toro expects us to accept his murder for the sake of saving an anthropomorphized beast as necessary justice. For this is not a world of unconditional love that imposes itself through grace and mercy, but rather the Alinskyite kind of love that divides people by violence and cruelty and then has the nerve to boast of unity. Nothing better hits this home than the film’s ending, which I will explore momentarily.
ALL THE SPOLERS!!!
As hinted at above, Elisa and the creature have sex, and nowhere does the story deal with that reality in all its complexity. Make no mistake: Elisa crosses a line that warrants examination and insight. It asks no questions. Can someone really have an interspecies sexual relationship without sacrificing their own humanity? Can those bonds truly be everlasting? Is there no danger in crossing such a line? No tragedy? No pathos? Nothing?
Like a true leftist that favors chimerical whimsies over human nature, Del Toro’s film just accepts their love as a given — a natural force that cannot be contained. Like “the shape of water,” as the title suggests. It can go anywhere and touch anything.
Defenders of the movie will say that Del Toro means the relationship as a fantastical allegory for interracial relationships, but that is negated by the movie not addressing if the creature indeed has a soul — the Imago Dei principle — the image and likeness of God. We know the movie recognizes the Imago Dei principle because Michael Shannon’s character references it.
Indeed, in the early proceedings, Shannon’s character makes the assumption that the creature is not of the Imago Dei, which therefore makes him a mere animal without a soul. Scripture would classify it as a very advanced Nephesh — a soulish animal capable of relationships with human beings.
Elisa, however, sees otherwise. To her, not only does the creature have a soul, but it is worth risking her life and the lives of others to protect. The movie gives no conclusive answer to this question. In fact, as events unfold, it downright negates her perspective: Not only does the creature have no soul but if it does, it is a demonically monstrous one, unworthy of human love or compassion.
Throughout the movie, the creature is revealed to have as much of a violent side as it does a gentle side. It cuts people’s fingers off, eats a live cat, and slices a man’s throat among other things. Simultaneously, it also has the magical ability to heal people. With the touch of its hand, the creature gives a bald man hair again and Elisa the ability to breathe underwater.
This lifts the creature to godlike status, hence why Amazon natives worshipped it as such. It gives the creature unchecked power over human beings. As a wise man said, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Needless to say, the creature uses none of his powers responsibly.
At the film’s conclusion, Michael Shannon’s character, Strickland, shoots both the creature and Elisa. First, we believe them dead, but then the creature miraculously heals them both.
A resurrection occurs.
And what does this godlike creature with invincible powers do? Does he transform Strickland’s hateful heart by showing grace? Does he heal Strickland of his wounds? Does he use his power to bring the man into redemption? No, he slits Strickland’s throat, leaving his wife a widow and children fatherless.
That’s not loving or salvific, that’s fear. Actually, it’s totalitarianism. It’d be as if Superman killed every criminal that crossed his path.
Take another heroic figure who faced a similar situation: Jesus Christ. Facing certain death and capture in the garden of Gethsemane, Christ tells St. Peter to lay down his sword when he slices a soldier’s ear off. Choosing mercy over vengeance, Christ then uses His power to heal the soldier’s wound – for no man should have to die when triumph will prevail no matter what. In Del Toro’s worldview, Christ should have used his powers to kill everyone who betrayed him.
The movie ends with an original poem that describes this shapeless, formless love: “Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me, for you are everywhere.” This sobering wisdom from Langston Hughes will suffice instead:
I went down to the river,
I set down on the bank.
I tried to think but couldn’t,
So I jumped in and sank.