(may contain traces of spoilers)
THE SHAPE OF WATER is kinda like Guillermo del Toro’s version of AMELIE, and obviously in his version Amelie fucks a sea monster. Sally Hawkins (NEVER LET ME GO, GODZILLA) plays Elisa, a mute (but not deaf) lady living a quirky life in Cold War era Baltimore. Her apartment is above a beautiful one-screen movie theater showing THE STORY OF RUTH. Her next door neighbor and best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins, BLUE STEEL) is a gay painter of magazine advertisements who lives with a bunch of cats. In the opening scene, a nearby chocolate factory is on fire, so he’s even given an impression of how the place smells (shoulda seen it in 4DX).
Elisa’s job is mopping floors in an aerospace research lab, and one night the bosses bring in “The Asset” (Doug Jones, FANTASTIC 4: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER), a creature from the unspecified lagoon in a metal tube, for top secret experiments. Elisa and her co-worker friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer, HALLOWEEN II, DRAG ME TO HELL) don’t see it at first, but they hear its roar and have to clean up its bloody mess when it removes two fingers from sadistic head of security Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, BAD BOYS II) without getting his permission.
We all know del Toro loves his creatures, and we’ll get to that. He also delights in contrasting them against depraved monsters of the human variety. Strickland is one of these, an aggressive bully who likes to talk about “signs of weak character” and the brand and stats of the cattle prod he carries around. You know you’re a bad person if you have a little speech prepared about your favorite candy that you can suddenly go into while intimidating somebody so they’ll think “Oh good, he changed the subject to candy all the sudden, I don’t understand why but maybe we are going to eat candy now or something” and then “Oh no, I should’ve known, he only brought up the candy as an analogy for his philosophy of brutal torture.”
This is a romance and people are calling it an “adult fairy tale,” so I was surprised (but shouldn’t have been) that del Toro still finds novel ways to make us wince. So it’s a sweet movie but yes, a guy puts his finger through the bullet hole in somebody’s cheek. And the creature indulges in the graphic cat eating that the tv show ALF always hinted at but never delivered.
Anyway Elisa starts sneaking into the room to have her lunch, which turns into feeding the creature hard boiled eggs, which turns into playing him Benny Goodman records and tap dancing and teaching him sign language, which turns into finding out they’re planning to dissect him and putting together a scheme to bust him out.
Of course there’s other shit going on. One of the scientists (Michael Stuhlbarg, MILES AHEAD) is actually a Russian agent, but when he’s supposed to kill the creature he switches sides (not to the red white and blue – to the green and scaly). And Giles has a whole interesting arc as a lonely gay man who deliberately tries to ignore the troubles of the world. He watches old musicals all day and all but covers his ears singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” when there’s a news report about the white supremacist power structure spraying civil rights activists with firehoses. But a concise little side story opens his eyes and propels him to help Elisa, offering his skills as an illustrator for fake IDs and work van logos.
As a freelancer, Giles paints magazine ads about aggressively All-American families enjoying Jello molds. It’s one of my favorite touches of the movie that when Strickland goes home his orange furnishings and perky wife (Lauren Lee Smith, TRICK ‘R TREAT) and kids look straight out of that bullshit advertising fantasyland. Giles makes his living selling the idea of this world he could never be allowed into, and the guy who does get to be in it is a racist, sexually-harassing sadist who does not seem fulfilled by it, judging by the scene where he puts a bloody hand over his wife’s mouth during sex so he can imagine she’s the mute mop lady from work.
Giles really comes through for Elisa, but I gotta say, Zelda is one of the most understanding friends who ever lived. Not only does she cover for her at work and reluctantly help with the breakout, but when she finds out Elisa fucked the sea monster she doesn’t even throw up, it’s more of a “Girl, good for you!” type of reaction.
Elisa tries keeping him in her bath tub, but that’s not gonna cut it for too long, and it would be wrong to sell him to Sea World or something, so she plans to FREE WILLY him in the river when the rains fill it up enough. So it’s all about looking at the clouds hoping the rain comes soon enough to get him to safety before ol’ cattleprod can find him, but late enough that Elisa gets to spend more time with her sea-sweetie.
I’m pretty sure this comes out of del Toro’s long-mentioned-in-interviews dream of a CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON remake where it’s a love story and the creature is an Amazonian god. I’d guess that would’ve been more of a jungle adventure, and this is the urban romance version. Like so many del Toro monsters this is a strong physical performance by the lanky Jones under incredible makeup (this time by Legacy Effects). It’s similar to Abe Sapien from HELLBOY, but reveals other features like fins and frills that open up and patches under the skin that can glow. We also hear how his junk works, which I’m sure is heavily detailed in del Toro’s famous journals, but we don’t see it.
Now, I’ve got an ending spoiler to discuss below that somewhat alleviates the prudish argument that I’m about to make, but I’m just gonna come out and say it: I was not totally on board with Elisa fucking a sea monster. I kept thinking that this is not that different from if she worked at a lab that had a gorilla that knew sign language, and she took it to her apartment and fucked it.
A friend pointed out that his healing powers make him more than Koko the gorilla, they make him a god. But #1, she already thinks she’s in love with him before she knows that, and #2 it still doesn’t prove he has a higher brain function than just knowing how to ask for eggs. Is that really our standard for human-level intelligence? It’s not even like he could specify scrambled or sunny side up. For all we know he doesn’t even know that sign means egg, it might be “food” or “feed me” or “hungry” to him. We have no idea. Does he know these eggs come from chickens, and that Elisa has boiled them in water to make them solid? Absolutely not. And that means it’s too early to seal the deal in my opinion.
And furthermore – I apologize for bringing this up, but this is America and we have freedom of speech – E.T. had healing powers too, and had more sophisticated communication skills than The Asset, and I’m confident that with some tutoring from Elliott he could easily pass the Egg Comprehension Test. But I still don’t think I’d be comfortable with Elliott’s mom taking E.T. to bed. Sure, fine, Elliott would be excited to have him as his stepdad. But nobody wants to think about E.T. having sex, and especially with a human woman or man. So I’m sorry I brought it up but really THE SHAPE OF WATER brought it up in my opinion.
This brings me to my ENDING SPOILERS for people who have seen the movie. Elisa has those scars on her neck, supposedly an injury that severed her vocal cords. And in the end, at least by Giles’s telling, ol’ sexy Asset turns them into gills so they can live happily ever after under the sea (darling it’s better down where it’s wetter take it from me).
I took this to be him using his god powers to turn her injury into an asset, but my lady explained it to me. Elisa was an orphan, found by the river, she dreams of water, she’s attracted to a fucking sea monster… all this add ups to she was not born a land dweller. She had gills that grew over and her man has now healed them.
I felt dumb that I didn’t pick up on that, but in a small non-scientific survey I found that the men I talked to didn’t follow it either, but the women did. The men didn’t like the idea, but I did, because it made it seem less like that guy in Enumclaw that thought he had a special connection with his horse. If they actually come from the same unknown species then maybe there really is some kind of deeper communication and understanding going on than just “egg.” I hope. And I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be some Archie Bunker type stopping land people from falling in love with mermaids. I will try to have an open mind and keep up with the times. But I want to be sure that the relationship is consensual.
Once I got over that hangup I was able to appreciate it more as a nice beauty-and-the-beautiful-beast tale. It’s del Toro’s most heartfelt and precise storytelling in quite some time, so if you’re into his stuff you may love it. It’s a sweet story about love and friendship and the little guy or gal triumphing over the assholes, the bigots, the phonies, the people who have no respect for the ancient, the mysterious, the strange.
I don’t know if there’s a name for this, but I love the feeling of watching a movie that surprises you when it reveals the true meaning of its title. If the phrase “the shape of water” sounds kinda poetic to you that’s because it’s literally a line from a love poem. When it all comes together and you understand exactly what those words are describing it’s such a moment of pure, perfect beauty that it’s almost a shame some territories changed the title to SPLASH 2: I FUCKED A SEA MONSTER. 
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.