The Shape of Water Review

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Happy New Year, everyone! I celebrated by heading off to the movies by myself and taking in a film.

A lot of digital ink has already been spilled over The Shape of Water, the latest from director Guillermo del Toro who also co-wrote the screenplay. Set in the 1960’s the story centers around Elisa, a mute janitor played by Sally Hawkins, who comes to form a relationship with a mysterious aquatic man-like creature.

Much has been made of the use of the color green in the film, and for good reason, because it’s everywhere, except for when it isn’t. The green gets subverted by its complementary color, red, in a few key scenes. In fact, one of the first times we see any red it glows in jeweled ruby tones. That the red is blood only serves to make the moment more jarring and remind the audience that some not very nice things are happening off-screen.

They’re happening to the Amphibian Man played by Doug Jones who was dragged away from the Amazon by the sadistic head of operations named Strickland (Michael Shannon), who carries a cattle prod. Eliza is drawn to the creature of the Amazon and attempts to make contact by offering him hard-boiled eggs. Then she plays him records and teaches him sign language. Then comes the day they decide to kill the creature so they can study it against the wishes of the scientist Hostetler (Michael Stuhlberg). As an aside, when the character name-checked Madison, WI, it got a wonderful reaction out of the audience at the showing I attended.

What follows in the second half of the story is a rescue. There is an “other”-ness to the creature Eliza identifies with which echoes through the other main players including her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins, in the best performance of the movie who also narrates) and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). The problem isn’t what makes them different, it’s the demonizing of “others” and how heartless it is to deny living creatures dignity that comes up over and over again that’s made obvious by the end if only because we’ve been hit over the head with it.

I won’t spoil the ending here, but there were some comments I couldn’t help hearing on the way out of the theater. The one that got repeated more than once was “It’s a fairy tale.”

Of course, I was reminded of the following exchange from The Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.”

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