Once upon a time in a not so faraway land, lived a mute cleaner-lady named Elisa Esposito. She dared to fall in love with a gilled-God who, much like her, couldn’t talk. The faraway land was Baltimore, USA and the time period was the Cold War.
Guillermo de Toro’s The Shape of Water is part Grimm’s fairy tale and part political commentary. Our mute heroine Elisa (Sally Hawkins) realizes soon enough in her life that she is unwanted. Everyone sees her as lacking something and her existence is a solitary one.
Elisa’s best friend is a gay cartoonist-cum-neighbor who tries his level best to have a conversation with someone who can actually talk back. But the old man, who is losing hair faster than he can count, is left standing in front of the mirror every morning and wondering to himself “when did I get here.”
His name is Giles (Richard Jenkins) and he wins my heart. I relate to him in a lot of ways. Giles is just an oddity trying to survive in a world that wants to marginalize him and shove him away in the corner. “I was born either too early or too late for my life,” he says.
Elisa’s routine has been perfected to the dot. She wakes up to the sound of the alarm clock, boils three eggs to take for lunch, masturbates in her bathtub, gets late for work, scrubs the dirty pee-filled floors of the bathroom, goes back home and sleeps again.
But one day, the government brings a prisoner to the facility. It comes in a tank and resembles the fish-man from Hellboy (again a de Toro movie) named Abe Sapien. Elisa is curious and she starts visiting him every lunch and gets him boiled eggs.
This ‘God-caught-in-the-rivers-of-the-Amazon’ becomes best buddies with Elisa and eats the boiled eggs. He learns sign language and finally Elisa has someone who is happy to see her. “When he looks at me, he doesn’t know what I lack,” she says to Giles when convincing him to help her rescue the God.
Every fairy tale has a villain and here it is Richard Striker (Michael Shannon), a security guy whose job is to tame the asset by torturing it. Striker is the quintessential American conservative male who has sex missionary style, wants his wife silent, has a Cadillac, and thinks himself superior to the rest of the world. He sees the God as an ‘affront’, an uncivilized creature that is beneath him just because he cannot comprehend his difference.
Coming from a Mexican director like de Toro, I find that this film reflects the feelings of majority of non-conservative Americans and other marginalized communities in the USA. The cleaners Elisa and her black friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are referred to as people who have ‘no names, no ranks; they only clean.’ They are both at a disadvantage: Elisa is a mute Latina and Zelda is black.
“No siblings? Isn’t that a little strange for your people?” Striker asks Zelda.
Difference of any kind is not tolerated in the America of the Cold War and the director stresses on that fact again and again. Giles is thrown out of a café because he is gay; a black couple is not welcome in the same café; Striker tries to force himself on Elisa because she is a mute and because her last name is Esposito; a creature from the Amazon has to be dissected and killed because it represents the ‘other’.
The God is not very different from Striker. They both walk on two feet, have their own means of communication, need food for sustenance and have sex. Yet, Striker has to separate himself from the God because it is that distinction that gives Striker his identity. It is because Striker captured the God, brought it back to the lab for testing and tortured it that he was able to afford a Cadillac and a better pay day. Striker’s achievements are grounded in him demeaning the God. Striker is a suit and he reminds me of a certain redheaded politician who loves to demean other races.
Richard Striker, Elisa, Zelda and Giles are all types that fit into well-defined boxes. I wish de Toro had given them a chance to become characters who did things outside the box and surprised the audience and themselves.
The only character in film who, I thought, travelled outside the box and established himself as a man who thought for himself, was Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) – a Russian spy implanted in the Baltimore lab as an American scientist.
Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, alias Bob, was tasked with studying the creature and reporting his findings back to the Soviets. When nothing more could be done, he was asked to kill the creature so that the Americans failed to do research on it. If he had remained a type, he would probably have done as told. But he showed empathy and helped the creature escape. That isn’t something we see in spy stories, very often.
The Shape of Water, like most fairy tales, ends on a happy note. Hope is kept alive, evil is struck out and true love endures. Maybe it’s just me but I felt the ending was wrapped up too nicely in a bow for the purpose of box office sales.
Having said that even I felt a tingle of joy when I saw Striker die a bloody death. That made me hope that our present will someday take a turn such as this.