Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Shape of Water (2017)

Elisa Esposito goes through the same routine every day, sleeping during the day and working at night at the Occam Aerospace Research Center in Baltimore as a cleaning lady. She is mute due to scars around her neck from infancy and communicates with sign language. When the facility brings in an "asset" that turns out to be an amphibious man, Elisa is immediately fascinated. The creature is kept in shackles, cut, electrocuted, suffocated, and all other manner of torture inflicted by the military, spearheaded by Colonel Richard Strickland. Elisa spends as much time as she can with the amphibious man, introducing him to music, feeding him hardboiled eggs, and teaching him sign language. When the military decides to terminate "the asset," Elisa gets her few friends to attempt to free the man she fell in love with.

Guillermo del Toro's vision is always exciting, fresh, and steeped in horror. The Shape of Water is another fairy tale film for adults that deals with love in unexpected places, outcasts, and the toxic nature of the patriarchy. Elisa is a generally cheerful person who goes through her daily life with few friends and simple pleasures. As a cleaning lady, she can't afford lavish things, but manages to make the things within her means special. Most of the people in her life dismiss her out of hand due to her mute nature, but her true friends, who are her neighbor Giles and her co-worker Zelda, treat her as they would anyone else. Giles is a struggling artist and closeted gay man in an era where coming out would mean losing everything. Zelda is a no-nonsense African American woman in a time of segregation and overt racism. Elisa finds kinship and respect with both of her friends despite how the world treats them and they find the same in her.

The amphibious man is essentially the Creature from the Black Lagoon. He was taken from a river in South America where he was worshipped as a god. In the US, the military abuses and tortures him. They only find value in a dissection of the creature to find out how it works even though he may be the only one of his kind. The Russians, on the other hand, care more about destroying the creature to keep the knowledge from the Americans. The amphibious man has intelligence and the ability to learn along with animalistic instincts and behaviors. He is in between human and animal with traits of both. His relationship with Elisa starts off as friendship and progresses to attraction and love. Their relationship will never be a conventional one, but they make each other happy and that's all that really matters. Elisa and her friends, along with a Russian double agent who values the man over his country, break the amphibious man out of the lab in a half baked, pulse pounding heist. His life at Elisa's home has some hiccups, but is generally beneficial until his health starts to decline.

The villain of this piece is Colonel Richard Streckland, a man completely confident in himself. He treats those he views under him like garbage shown when he unabashedly pisses on the floor in front of Elisa and Zelda who just cleaned. Racism and sexism color his point of view and he tosses out comments no matter who is present. The patriarchal society has told him his whole life that he is worthy, special, and above everyone else. The scene at the car dealership encompasses this when the salesman feeds him a line about being a man of the future. Streckland falls for it and buys the car because it's in line with what he's been fed his whole life. When he loses the "asset" to what he thinks is a sophisticated Black Ops team, his whole career, all that he's worked for his whole life, could be destroyed. The creature bit off his fingers early in the film and those slowly necrotizing digits symbolize his fall and his self perceived value influenced by the patriarchy. He rips off those fingers in a fit of rage, showing that he will find the creature and destroy it even if it means destroying himself as well. Streckland could have easily been a one dimensional villain, but his motivation and reasoning give him dimension.

The Shape of Water is an absolutely beautiful film with love and friendship right alongside violence and cruelty. Fantasy exists with harsh reality and social issues that are still relevant today. Every performance is exceptional, especially Richard Jenkins as Giles and Michael Shannon as Colonel Streckland. The pacing is a little unexpected, but perfect in retrospect. The mystery of the creature isn't dwelled upon because we all know what it is. More time is dedicated to getting to know all the characters, building up their relationship, and moving the plot along. Guillermo del Toro made a wonderful movie with a bizarre premise and makes it a touching, emotional work of art.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

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