I almost didn't go see The Shape of Water (2017) while it was at the theater, which would have been sad because it's worth seeing just for the lush visual experience on the big screen—and I just saw it at Milwaukee's Oriental Theatre's main screen, always an experience in itself. But I'm glad I went, on a Saturday afternoon—it was a great time at the movies. I almost stayed away because I saw the film described as “fantasy” and “horror,” two words that will always keep me scrolling down the movie option list. I also saw “fairy tale”—and that, along with an R rating should have intrigued me. The film's somewhat pretentious title, and the director, Guillermo del Toro, did intrigue me enough to go; I admit, I've never seen one of his movies, assuming (with titles like Blade II and Hellboy) that we just don't enjoy the same tea, but I knew I should have seen at least one of his films by now. He's just a few years younger than me (I assumed he was much younger) and I could immediately see, in this one, someone whose life was changed at a very young age by the movies. The apartments above the theater, the diner, the nightmarish industrial workplace—I was in. Some of my earliest memories are the 1950s ice cream shop, and the foundry where my dad worked, with robotic cauldrons pouring molten steel. And the almost round, black and white eye of the TV, and big band music playing on the kitchen radio. My aunt and uncle's 1950s motel, with its basement and sub-basement, and the pool where I learned to swim. And most of all, the movies my parents took me to, probably at an inappropriately young age, like the first of the James Bonds, which is why I'm obsessed to this day with that franchise which has always only been fair to dreadful.
Nostalgia aside (I'm one of those people who will not only not complain about the inexplicable insertion of a full-blown musical number, I think it should be a requirement), I was immediately caught up in the mystery plot that unfolded with little explanation (which unfortunately became a little too much explained later). You can always bring me in with a mystery. The big surprise, though, is how funny this movie was, especially for a movie with such a pretentious title, and a story that could have sunk under the weight of its sentimentality. The heart-rending and humor perform a pretty good balancing act here, or at least kept me on its good side, which I'm guessing is a credit to the credited writers, Vanessa Taylor and del Toro, and the top to bottom excellent cast, including two of my favorite actors, Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon. And if degree of difficulty is factored in on the acting awards, which it is (this is the most you'll ever hear me talking about awards, which I despise), English actress Sally Hawkins should win them all, as she convincingly and with great empathy plays a hispanic woman who communicates with sign language, and must endure an underwater nude sex scene with an actor wearing a scaly and dangerous looking fish-man costume.
With a different title, say, Fish-Man, this is your basic creature feature, not so different from the Saturday afternoon sci-fi movies I'd watch in the lobby of my aunt and uncle's motel as a kid—occasionally being scarred for life. I could see parents, wanting to save on babysitter expense, taking inappropriately young kids to this, focusing on that “fairy tale” part of its description. I personally don't think nudity should be problem with kids or anyone else, but that early scene with the guy torturing the creature with a high-voltage cattle prod, that could mess up your kids. And I'm sure if the kids play a lot of video games they're pretty numb to overly realistic gun violence, but the guy inserting his fingers (this movie has a sick obsession with fingers) into the freshly gunshot guy's bullet hole wounds and dragging him that way, I'm not sure that's something you want your kids to form their brains with. The creature's spiny penis is left to the imagination (which hopefully is an adult's imagination) but the bad man's sex scene with his wife, filmed from above, is something nobody should have to see.
I've also seen this described as a “Cold War thriller”—which means there are Russians (who provide us with additional humor) and a really pretty suspenseful action plot, which is well done and doesn't dominate the story. The heart of this movie, though, is its characters—the mute woman who cleans at the secret government facility and her work friend (Octavia Spencer), and her older, gay man neighbor and best friend (Jenkins). The subplot about the diner where they go to eat pie was what really hooked me into the movie, I guess, so that later, when I'm forced to watch an otherworldly creature and experience its emotions, I'm in it. This is good filmmaking, good storytelling, I guess. It kind of made me think of one of those short stories by George Saunders. And then, also, the sadistic but tortured government creature wrangler (Shannon) who, as despicable as he is, is examined in great detail; we see scenes of his home life, and a very good scene with the General, his boss, reminding us that most bad people have someone worse writing their paycheck. Most interesting to me was the way the camera lingered over his incredible face, and then you notice his kind of creepy, alien-like eyes are not so different from the creature's amphibian eyes, and you're allowed to make of that what you want.
Personally, I could have watched a whole movie about all of these characters' everyday lives—their work, friendships, and the common-to-everyone difficulties with homophobia and racism—tempered with the love of music, movies, musicals—their friendships, and yes, there are cats. I guess no one figures there is a movie there, though, without the creature, the guns, villains and evil—and I suppose they're right—and you can't have all that rain if it doesn't mean something. But for me, rain is both the greatest character and the greatest plot, just rain for the sake of rain, and I think my favorite movie scenes are my favorites just because of the weather. But that's me, and maybe I'm getting to a point in my life where I'd rather watch the rain than see a movie, but until that time comes, I hope they keep making movies like this one, and showing them in movie theaters, so that once in awhile you can have that experience of leaving the theater and world looks—if even for a few minutes—very different.
Randy Russell 1.15.18