The Monster Movie to Make You Believe In Love

Last week, a friend dragged me to a movie that she described as a "love story between a mute woman and a fish." I was intrigued and had no idea what to expect. The Shape of Water turned out to be marvelous, an adult fairy tale swimming in truths about racism, homophobia, and the fear of the unknown.

The setting is Baltimore, Maryland. The time is the early '60s: America is in the grip of the Civil Rights movement and at the height of the Cold War. While Washington is obsessed with finding new ways to stay a step ahead of the Soviets, many Americans view the "others" — those with different skin tones, sexual dispositions, or ideologies — with contempt.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute, isolated and idealistic cleaning lady in a hidden, high-security government lab in Baltimore. She values routine and seems content with her stock in life. Everyday, she wakes up in the evening, makes her hard-boiled egg, checks in with her roommate Giles (Richard Jenkins) a repressed gay unemployed artist, takes the bus to work, and arrives just in time for her chatty and protective friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) to punch her in. All of this is upended when the "fish" is brought into the lab by cruel government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). The credits bill him as the "Amphibian Man." He is a blue-skinned, humanoid amphibian kidnapped by Strickland from the Amazon, where the natives consider him a god.

Strickland and most of the facility view the Amphibian Man as a test subject to be weaponized. They want to study and dissect him, looking for secrets that might counter the Russians. Strickland, in particular, treats him with contempt and hatred, routinely torturing him to show dominance. Opposing Strickland is Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist with a secret agenda, who wants the creature studied in a more humane way.

Elisa, on the other hand, becomes fascinated with the Amphibian Man, sneaking into his chamber, and introducing him to things from her life — hard boiled egg and recorded music. Neither of them can speak to anyone, and this shared experience lets them read each other on a more primal level. They develop an instant wordless bond. With time, their bond blossoms into love, leading to an inter-species romance that is beautiful, because it is narratively challenging. It flies in the face of social, even moral acceptability, and is set in a time when interracial and same-sex relationships were viewed in the same way.

Save for a surrealistic dream sequence late in the movie, neither Elisa nor the Amphibian Man utter a single word. And yet, stolen glances, intimate body language, and the characters’ actions reveal their deep longing to each other and to us. Sally Hawkins has done a truly incredible job with Elisa, spectacularly conveying her growth through the movie. She goes from being despondently content with her humdrum existence to facing down everything that is expected of her with a burning passion. She sneaks the Amphibian Man out of the lab in a daring escape and uses sign language to tell a clueless Strickland to f*** off in a poignant display of defiance. Hawkins has succeeded creating a multi-dimensional character with strength and vulnerability — without a line of dialogue.

Another way to look at The Shape of Water is as a monster movie. The Amphibian Man is green, blue and scaly, sounds like an alien, and towers above the human characters. He also has a penchant for violence — he claws off two of Strickland’s fingers and eats Giles’ cat. And yet, like Frankenstein’s monster or Godzilla or Kong, we see him as a literal fish out of the water, in a hostile, bigoted environment, fighting to survive.

The real monster, however, is the human being responsible for the creature’s plight. Michael Shannon has a blast playing Strickland as a willfully ignorant isolationist — the classic ugly American. He is humorless, intimidating, and regressive. In an early sequence, he makes fun of Elisa for being mute to her face, assuming she is also deaf. A little later, he calls her to his office and aggressively propositions her. He is openly contemptuous to those beneath him, virulent to those unlike him, and obsessed with impressing those above him. He even starts to look like a monster when he reattaches the fingers the Amphibian Man cut off. They turn gangrenous and drip with pus for the rest of the movie.

As is expected with a Guillermo Del Toro movie, the cinematography and set and sound design are out of this world. The visual palette itself is full of deep, oversaturated blues and greens — in hand soap, in Jello molds, in bathroom tiles and on the creature itself — and is evocative of the inherent mystery and romance of the ocean. The camera pans gracefully between lush scenes, and Alexandre Desplat’s score has a warm fluidity. This creates a sense of buoyancy that keeps a viewer from getting bogged down in the movie’s weightier themes.

The Shape of Water is Del Toro’s most impressive work since Pan’s Labyrinth. It has been nominated for 13 Oscars, and I hope it wins a fair number of them. Go watch it if you’d like a delightfully bubbly and slightly weird romance that makes you believe in love again. Go watch it if you’d like a heady meditation on race, bigotry, inclusion, and sexual identity told through a breathtakingly simple metaphor. Just go watch it. It’s an instant classic.