The Shape of Water is a Fairy Tale Like No Other

As a shy and introverted person, I always respond strongly to movies in which the protagonist doesn’t say much. One of the many reasons Mad Max: Fury Road is one of my favorite movies of all time is that Max has maybe a dozen lines throughout the film.

Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water features not one but two protagonists who never say a word.

Well, not counting the hissing noises.

Images: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Shape of Water is a tender love story about the oddly beautiful relationship between a mute woman and an amphibious fishman. The woman’s name is Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins. She works at a government facility of some kind (its purpose is never fully explained), where she works as a janitor with her friend Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer. Elisa’s only other friend is her neighbor Giles, played by Richard Jenkins, a kind soul who is a closeted gay man.

Elisa’s life follows a routine until something very strange arrives at the facility in which she works. That strange something is the aforementioned fishman, played by veteran creature actor Doug Jones. I say “creature actor” because although you might not recognize his name, chances are pretty good you’ve seen Doug Jones in a movie at some point, since his IMDb page lists 161 acting credits. He’s been in several of Guillermo del Toro’s other films, including the similar fishman Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies, as well as playing two creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth. He played two characters in that one, including the titular faun and the terrifying Pale Man, aka that skinny guy with his eyeballs in his hands who scared the bejesus out of literally everyone who saw Pan’s Labyrinth.

Bottom line, Jones is a pro. What Andy Serkis is to motion capture, Doug Jones is to acting in full-body makeup and prosthetics. I watched some of the movie’s special features, and in them Guillermo talks about how the creature’s facial expressions and body language needed to be expressive and readable in order for the audience to sympathize with the creature, and Doug Jones does incredible work in that regard. I immediately felt empathy for the creature, and was invested in the unconventional relationship between Elisa and the creature right from the start.

But as with any love story worth its salt, there are those who want to keep the lovebirds apart. The main villain of the story is Strickland, the agent who captured the creature in South America, where the locals worshipped it as a god, and transported it to the facility in Baltimore, where the film takes place. Strickland is in charge of finding out what makes the creature tick, and his methods for doing so involve generous use of a cattle prod.

Strickland is played by Michael Shannon, an actor who is probably a perfectly nice, normal human being but who scares the hell out of me in just about every movie I see him in. The guy is intense, and every one of his characters has this ferocity that is incredibly intimidating. Strickland sees the creature as an abomination, an affront to humanity. “We are made in the image of God,” he tells Elisa and Zelda. “God looks like us, not like that thing.”

Strickland feels no empathy for the creature whatsoever and seems to delight in its torment. He clearly sees himself as the hero of this story, and if this film had been made by anyone other than Guillermo del Toro, he might be. But as it is, Strickland is the monster of this story, not the fishman, or “The Asset,” as Strickland and other government brass refer to it. I hadn’t seen The Shape of Water when I wrote my posts about the villains of 2017, but if I had Strickland would have more than earned his place.

The movie looks gorgeous. It takes place some time in the 1950’s or 60’s. Although the exact year is never specified, it’s in the middle of the Cold War, which is important to the plot since one of the scientists in the facility is secretly a Russian agent. The movie has a retro look that I just loved, some scenes, like the ones in Strickland’s house, look like they could have come straight out of a TV commercial from that era. The movie also reminded me quite a bit of the video game Bioshock, which is a series I’m a big fan of. If only Guillermo had gotten to make a Bioshock movie, that would have been awesome. Oh, well. Still, The Shape of Water is a beautiful movie not just in terms of the visuals, but also the themes, story and performances.

I wish Sally Hawkins had won the Oscar for Best Actress. Her wordless performance in this film is spellbinding. She does an incredible job capturing Elisa’s emotions, so that the viewer understands her personality and motivations even without any spoken dialogue. In the similarly-wordless fishman, she finds a soulmate. Their relationship is developed with care and minute attention to detail, and the film’s ending is deeply moving. It feels like a logical fulfillment of their central relationship. I won’t spoil it because I really want people who haven’t seen it to see this movie as soon as possible, but by the time the end credits rolled there were some tears in my eyes. And they weren’t tears of sadness.

I’m a shy and reserved person, so seeing movies about people who have trouble expressing themselves is very meaningful for me. Elisa is a person with a lot going on beneath her placid surface. Once she falls in love with the fishman, it’s hard for her to express her feelings for him. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when she tells Giles via sign language what her relationship with the creature means to her, and he translates as she signs to him. “When he looks at me, the way he looks at me, he does not know what I lack, or how I am incomplete. He sees me for what I am, as I am. He’s happy to see me. Every time. Every day.” I’m not crying, you’re crying. The Shape of Water is a story about two people (technically, one person and one fishman, but you get the idea) who are perfect for each other, and I loved it for that.

Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors, and I’m so happy The Shape of Water was such a success and won him all those Academy Awards. I fell in love with The Shape of Water, right from the opening scene. It’s a fairy tale for adults, made with love and care. I didn’t call it an adult fairy tale because that makes it sound like a porno, but seriously, this movie is not for kids. As with Guillermo’s other fairy tales like Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak, he doesn’t shy away from occasional bursts of graphic violence, and there are one or two scenes in The Shape of Water that had me squirming. But the film is ultimately a beautiful one, the kind of movie that stays with you long after it’s over. It feels like a movie that no one other than Guillermo could have made, and I can’t wait to see it again.

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