The Shape of Water (2017)

Dir. Guillermo del Toro. Starring Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon

I can’t help but feel I saw The Shape of Water for the first time back in October, when I went to see Murder on the Orient Express in theaters and first encountered the trailer for Shape of Water. If you’ve seen the trailer, or if you watched the Oscars and saw the highlights of Sally Hawkins’ and Octavia Spencer’s performances, then you too have felt most of what the movie has for you to feel, encountered the sickly yellow-green-teal color palette which is certainly effective, considered the mute janitor and the amphibious man and the angry white guy. Watching the movie strikes you with exactly the same beats that you expect the film will hit. The boldness of the color scheme, or of the social allegory that the movie wants to dabble in, is not even as shocking as the words “fish sex.” It is already quaintly indicative of a safe center-left perspective on the world, in which one wishes to highlight people who do not belong to the strictly white cisgender male world, but which in haste becomes a petri dish for thin characters and stereotypes in lieu of challenging readings of challenging situations. People die. Blood is shed. Casual torture is practiced. But there is no danger in The Shape of Water, no real risk. I was a little surprised that we see Sally Hawkins without her clothes on almost immediately, a choice which seems to have been made with the MPAA in mind, daring them to make the movie anything but R, needing them to call for an adult audience in the way that the movie itself does not necessarily do.

Hawkins and Jones are the reason this movie works, although, as one might reasonably expect, they work for very different reasons. Jones, who is del Toro’s true muse, is sufficiently alien to convince us of the strangeness of the Amphibian Man, worshiped as a god in the Amazon and is himself imbued with some unusual abilities. The body suit obviously does most of the work, but Jones lives in it, and that’s a partly literal statement. He moves like a being who has spent most of his life in a river, more comfortable sliding through mucky water than he is walking, or even standing. The most human thing about him is his physique, not his bearing, and it is essential that the movie treats him more like a chimpanzee than a person. This does not mean that he’s unworthy of being treated like a person, as one exchange in the movie argues. Elisa tells Giles that they risk losing their own humanity if they fail to help the Amphibian Man, which is trite but probably true. It’s one of the scenes where Hawkins’ performance stands out, and my guess is that as the movie ages her performance will be its single most praised element. Few actors have her slyness, and although the movie doesn’t always give Hawkins a chance to exhibit it, there are moments where her humor is perfectly evinced. She holds her tongue out to show that it’s turned green after eating a particularly luminous key lime pie. Playing a woman who cannot speak means that her facial expressions are more aggressive than the average person’s, but she holds off before it becomes clownish. The look in her eye as she holds the Amphibian Man, and as he holds her, is probably the film’s strongest image. In her face she contains pleasure, relief, mischief, and the ferocity that The Shape of Water does little else to embrace.

This would be better movie with a better villain, and I’m inclined not to blame Michael Shannon much. Strickland is a bogeyman for the 21st Century, not the 20th. Watching him is like watching the scene in the first episode of Mad Men where Joan describes a typewriter as “simple enough for a woman to use” so we could say, “Ah, yes, The Past was bad and it has made its way into The Present.” A law enforcement officer with bloody-minded tastes wrapped up in an almost cheerful sense of duty—a soft racist who thinks he has to define words for Zelda (Spencer)—a man who wants very much to have sex with Elisa, even if that means rape. He is a collection of what we hate, and rightly, about the spectrum of white privilege he lives in. Yet he has no motivations for what he does, making him just about the only character this side of the Amphibian Man who isn’t given a set of reason to be some kind of way. (In this he also fails the qualifications for “bad white man” in our own time, for we know that the worst of this grade do what they do to maintain the status quo in which they benefit hugely and disproportionately. The Shape of Water never does express this fully with Strickland.)  Giles, blackballed for his homosexuality (presumably), wants to feel like he’s part of someone else’s life. Zelda wants to live as dignified a life as she can muster. Dimitri (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to make scientific advancements without losing the humanity that Elisa argues for when he’s not around. And Elisa herself wants someone to look at her and value her as a human being. And so later in the movie, Giles throws himself into Elisa’s plan because he cares about her, and Zelda does what she can to build up the people around her, and Dimitri caves when he’s told to eliminate “the asset,” and Elisa finds love in impossible circumstances.

What does Strickland want? “More” seems like a pat answer, and more than that it’s not something we can sink our teeth into. In the abstract, Strickland is very frightening. He also proves why symbolism is a powerful element in storytelling, because the abstract is, almost by definition, not particularly scary. This is a shame, because Michael Shannon is an enormously gifted actor who is particularly good at turning the abstract into something deeply personal. In Revolutionary Road, set in the same time period as The Shape of Water, he turns a gadfly part into the best piece of the movie. In Nocturnal Animals, the possibly thankless role of the dying cop becomes especially human. In Take Shelter, a movie where he plays a man who may or may not be dealing with the onset of schizophrenia, it is essential for him to take abstract ideas and turn them into physical reactions. It’s just that “Everything wrong with white men for the past several hundred years” is a role too big for anybody, a concept bigger than Cecil B. DeMille or D.W. Griffith could have tackled in an eight-hour movie. If Shannon crumbles, it’s not his fault.

The Shape of Water presents an interesting dilemma in its cinematography which reminds me of the dilemma with A Face in the Crowd. In that movie, Andy Griffith is far and away the best part, but casting him keeps the movie stuck in a very Yankee perspective, as if Southerners are the only ones likely to be led astray by a huckster. The Shape of Water is one of the most distinctively colored movies I’ve ever come across, but I can’t help but wonder if the movie would have been better for black and white cinematography. There is one scene in the movie, a fantasy within a fantasy, in which Elisa and her beau perform a dance number in high-contrast black and white. It’s the most unusual thing that happens in the entire picture, commensurate with the magic of filling an entire bathroom with water. And it works so much better than it seems like it would work; it is a vocal expression of joy that the movie doesn’t require, precisely, but is probably better for having. It would have been kind of ludicrous outside of black and white; a movie many shades of teal cannot make that dance sequence work. I wonder if the movie should have ditched the teal entirely and chosen to work in the palette of the time that influenced it. John Ford almost managed to hide Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne’s wrinkles with black and white; The Creature from the Black Lagoon would have been ridiculous in color. I just get the vibe that The Shape of Water would have been more powerful in black and white.

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