Recently, I finally got around to watching Revolutionary Road, in which Michael Shannon plays a small but key role as a recently released mental patient who disrupts the marital façade of a suburban couple. Over the last several years, Shannon has proven himself an invaluable and versatile actor, in both film and on the television series Boardwalk Empire. His General Zod notwithstanding—a loud, overbearing performance that I blame more on the writers’ and director Zack Snyder’s fundamental misunderstanding of their source material—Shannon has done excellent work. He seems most at home playing edgy, borderline-insane authority figures. In Guillermo del Toro’s masterful, moving magical realist film, The Shape of Water, Shannon’s Richard Strickland is, in some respects, the straw that stirs the drink, so much so that I recently told my wife it might well be my worst nightmare to awake and find Shannon standing over me, watching me sleep with those bug eyes of his.
Except for the visually muddled destruction-porn mediocrity that was Pacific Rim—a movie that could have been Snyder’s work, except that it had some semblance of character development and a more-or-less coherent plot—I love del Toro’s work. Were I to rank his films, always a dicey and subjective and ultimately useless proposition, I would put The Shape of Water ahead of everything but Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. It’s a strongly directed, well-edited movie with super makeup, beautiful retro set design, and a script that is equal parts Creature of the Black Lagoon monster-adventure and suspense-romance.
The plot: Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning woman at a research facility that looks like a dank VA hospital, lives a life of strict routine, right down to the perpetual tardiness that bemuses her best friend, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer, who—in a situation that will likely please Academy voters even as it annoys cultural critics—plays a similar black-domestic role as her Oscar-winning turn in The Help). Each night, Elisa goes home to a small apartment located next to the near-identical residence of her other best friend, gay painter Giles (Richard Jenkins, who will also likely be recognized this award season).
Elisa’s dull life is disrupted with the arrival of Strickland and a mysterious research subject encased in a water tank. None of this affects Elisa much until, one day, an injured Strickland stumbles out of the lab, having gotten too close to whatever he brought into the facility. As the cleaning crew are left alone in the lab, Elisa discovers exactly what it is—a creature the film’s credits call Amphibian Man. He will look very familiar to fans of the old Warner Brothers Creature series. Played here by Doug Jones, who has made a career of embodying strange and/or homicidal humanoid creatures in del Toro films (see the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth), the Amphibian immediately bonds with Elisa and demonstrates a human capacity to learn and communicate.
Many viewers’ experience with this film may hinge on how deeply they buy into the romance between Elisa and Amphibian Man, which includes not only an underwater sex scene but a later explanation of exactly how this kind of interspecies coupling is even possible, given the Ken-doll appearance of the Man’s bathing-suit area. Perhaps Elisa’s enchantment comes too easily. Perhaps we might wonder why and how the Man reciprocates her fascination, given the physical and communicative barriers between them. One answer is that Elisa finds ways to communicate sensually without a voice, through food and music. Another is that we are probably supposed to understand that these characters, voiceless and lonely as they are, thrive on empathy. A third reason is, perhaps, revealed in the (imagined?) final underwater scene, and while you may see the revelation coming, it still feels impactful.
The eccentricities of this love story should come as no surprise to del Toro devotees, nor should the excellent performances he coaxes from his cast. Hawkins’s expressive face and the timing and tenderness of her gestures could serve as an acting class in portraying emotion without words. Shannon, all self-righteous glower and rage, conveys the personal and the universal threat of a xenophobic government; it feels all too timely.
Spencer’s quiet strength radiates in her every scene; she makes Zelda’s roles as Elisa’s fierce protector, as wife of a no-account man, and as background player in a government facility oozing masculinity and classism, more than the sidekick-of-color comedy relief she might otherwise have been. The script helps, giving Zelda key roles in facilitating Elisa’s opportunities for romance and in the ultimate rebellion against Richard Strickland’s angry-white-male tyranny. Though this is primarily still a story about white characters, the occasional nod to the period’s racial injustices at least assure that those problems are not erased.
As Giles, Richard Jenkins, always a strong addition to any cast, delivers an award-worthy performance dripping with the loneliness of the outsider. A painter, a gay man who lives alone and wants desperately to find love, best friends with his mute neighbor and—using symbolism that is becoming more common—owner of a couple of cats (one of which is quite unfortunate), Giles steps out of his melancholy but entrenched life to help Elisa on her great adventure, and Jenkins makes Giles’s every moment, every decision, every out-of-character act both funny and uplifting.
Whether the film earns our understanding of Elisa and Amphibian Man’s romantic connection is a key question for viewers and critics, and my main quibble with the film is that it spends key screen time on a couple of scenes that seem to add little to the narrative or characterizations—Strickland at home, for instance. This time could have been used to deepen and broaden the connective tissue between Elisa and Amphibian Man. I was also a bit surprised at how Strickland’s story ends. Given what we learn about the nature and powers of Amphibian Man and how the movie generally rejects aggression as problem-solving, I expected something else. Still, as a writer, I know you have to tell the story inside you, and not every reader/viewer will applaud every narrative decision. Even so, my disagreements are relatively minor.
Overall, The Shape of Water deserves the critical love it has gotten since its release and makes a powerful addition to del Toro’s canon. I look forward to buying my copy.