The Shape of Water

Cold war fears?

What do you get when you take Beauty and the Beast, take the old artist neighbor from Amelie, bring in a villain worthy of a Bond film, add some Soviet spies, and set it all during the race to space?

As the tale unfolds, it begins to question who really is the monster.

The Shape of Water. But The Shape of Water, while totally predictable, borrows these cultural references to make a magical fairy tale. What sets apart director Guillermo del Toro’s tale is the way these mutually lonely and misunderstood characters find each other. This is a love story, but it is also a tale of caring enough about the fate of the other being, which calls for choices that may lead to a continued state of loneliness.

Sally Hawkins portrays Elisa, a mute cleaning lady, who listens to the chatter around her but rarely enters the conversation. Hawkins, with the constraints of not speaking, does an amazing job conveying loneliness and the empathy Elisa has for others on the margins of society. Giles (Richard Jenkins), the unemployed artist, is the recipient of her care and the food she takes to him. Like the old artist in Amelie, he encourages her to step out of her protective shell.

They live above a movie theater, which ironically shows films of strong women (the biblical Esther, for one) and the bright dreams of a culture trying to forget the Cold War fear they live with every day. The world is changing, and while they can switch the TV channel from the news of the civil rights movement, it is happening nonetheless.

Zelda (Octavia Spencer), the coworker who is always looking out for Elisa, chats endlessly, making up for the quietness of Elisa. They punch in the time clock at the last moment and then begin the routine of sweeping and cleaning and being invisible to all the other workers. This invisibility allows them to observe the day a large tank arrives at the lab, containing what is thought to be a frightening amphibian man. The government agent, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), seeks to understand the biology of this creature. He wonders if this knowledge would help the United States get the lead in the race to space. His methodology is based on fear and abuse. He understands only power and pain.

Strickland goes home to a perfect little house, with two children and his wife, who is so ready to take care of him. They are living the dream, which includes his purchase of a Cadillac. What threatens his dream is the Russians and not managing this scientific study.

As the tale unfolds, it begins to question who really is the monster, and here we should maybe include a spoiler alert. Amphibian man does show some violent streaks, but mostly we see loneliness and pain. Strickland, however, is in happy bliss at home and then inflicts pain sadistically with his cattle prod just for the pleasure of it. The scientific quest remains secondary to beating the Russians.

Elisa, on the other hand, recognizes the pain in the eyes of amphibian man and uses hard-boiled eggs and music to make a connection. The eggs become part of the game they play as she comes to clean. She even sneaks in a record player and allows the music to say what she can’t. When she watches Strickland torture him again, pooling blood on the floor, she is driven to rescue him. This is not a minute too soon, since both the Russians and Strickland have decided to kill the amphibian man rather than let the other side gain an advantage.

The Shape of Water remains predictable but fully enjoyable thanks to the quality of the acting and the cinematography. The underwater cinematography is beautiful, dreamy, and safe, in contrast to the violence that is waiting outside. It is Zelda and Elisa, two women, who pull off the rescue with the help of Giles. Amphibian man isn’t changed as we might expect, but Elisa is changed by becoming heroic. In the end, it is a tale well told, but I think also a safe choice for the Academy Awards, where outside the famed Dolby theater the dream seems to be breaking down. The Shape of Water becomes not only about Cold War fears, but the anxiety caused by a cultural upheaval that is only beginning.

The Shape of Water is rated R.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.