“The Shape of Water”

 

            From the opening scene, you know this one is going to be an imagination-stretcher.  And it is.  Guillermo del Toro, as Writer and Director, brings his uniquely whimsical style to this underdog story, set in the Cold War era of the early 1960's.

            Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works as part of the janitoral crew at a top secret government research facility.  Her best friend there is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who is friendly and gabby and all too happy to translate Elisa's sign language for others when necessary.  Elisa is mute.  But she's not deaf.  And she's not unintelligent, either, though people treat her that way.  All except her next-door neighbor, a lonely artist named Giles (Richard Jenkins), who's still trying to get his old job back as a magazine illustrator, but there's just no market for his skills anymore.  But he's kind to Elisa, and understands her sign language, as well.  They both live in apartments above a movie theater.  Since Elisa doesn't drive, she takes the bus to work every day, and brings her boiled egg sandwich.  She's neither old nor young, nor does her life change from its rigid routine.  She'd love to find somebody to love.  But she doesn't know how.

            And then one day she accidentally discovers the “creature” that the government scientists have captured from the Amazon and are holding in that facility against his will.  It seems to be amphibious.  The scientists are thinking that his rare anatomy might give the U.S. an edge in the space race, since thus far in their satellite technologies, both the U.S. and Russia have discovered that space travel is hard on human physiology, with unknown deleterious effects on human psyche.

            The big boss at the facility, Strickland (Michael Shannon) is interested only in his own career advancement.  He doesn't care about scientists wanting more knowledge, and stubbornly resists the efforts of his lead scientist, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) to continue to keep their “experiment” alive for research purposes.  Strickland is only interested in their “creature” (Doug Jones) not falling into the hands of the Russians.  Little does he know that Dr. Hoffstetler is a Russian spy, who is torn between divided loyalties.

            Elisa, figuring out that the amphibious man/fish is destined for extermination, decides to take matters into her own hands to “rescue” him herself.  What follows is an almost comedic narrative of botched communication, awkward alliances, and unforeseen obstacles.  But by this time, we viewers are clear who the bad guys are, and who the good guys are.  We have a little whimsy, a little romance, a little sci-fi, and a little social commentary (ironically, containing some of the seamy sexual harrassment that Hollywood is now attempting to distance itself from).

            Even the brief moments of happiness won't last, but we root for these earnest, intrepid, underappreciated characters because we easily revel in their every little success.  Mr. del Toro has struck a responsive chord in this unlikely flight of fancy.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  When have you felt invisible to the people around you?

2)                  When have you wanted to do something you knew was illegal, but still felt was the right thing?

3)                  When have you realized you were falling in love unexpectedly?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association