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Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water Literally Sleeps With the Fishes (AFI Fest Review)

By Luke Y. Thompson

Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water Literally Sleeps With the Fishes (AFI Fest Review)

If only The Simpsons' Troy McClure could have lived to see this movie. Would seeing a fully nude Sally Hawkins getting it on with a Gill Man/Abe Sapien hybrid with puppy-dog eyes have satisfied his strange desires? We may never know, but the movie overall should satisfy yours. Unless maybe you were hoping a film about a Gill Man would be scarier, rather than weirdly romantic.

The Shape of Water upends a classic monster movie trope for a more woke world. Instead of the monster abducting some pretty girl, symbolically violating her, and then getting killed by a blandly heroic macho man, here it is the woman who abducts the monster from a confined situation, freeing him literally and emotionally by willingly loving him in the process. To a lesser degree, it's a bit of an R-rated twist on the '80s E.T./Disney-alien formula wherein kids try to save a magical being or creature from government vivisection while evading dumb parents. Del Toro, expectedly, adds blood, cat-eating, bathtub masturbation and naked intercourse, so it's not really for kids, but he also adds biblical metaphors, societal taboos, and workplace harassment into the mix. Set in a fantasy version of the '60s, The Shape of Water can do that without ever directly pushing modern-day buttons.

Sally Hawkins' Elisa has a job that is in some ways the best and worst in the world -- she's on the cleaning crew at a top secret, Area 51-like facility, a place that probably hired her because she's mute, and literally can't tell its secrets to anybody not fluent in American Sign Language. She also can't talk back when the tyrannical boss, Strickland (Michael Shannon) says racist, sexist stuff and generally acts terrible.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is ongoing and hunts for secret Russians are a top priority -- and a legit one, as it turns out there is indeed a spy somewhere in the base. So when a "sensitive asset" that's wheeled in an a water tank turns out to be an Amazonian fish-person, the military's only concern is whether the Russians can somehow weaponize it first. Only Elisa treats it as a living being -- initially throwing food as if to a pet, but later empathizing with the creature's pain at being unable to speak for itself.

Granted, it's a leap to go from that to actual boning, but we get there. This is a stylized world halfway between Amelie and Dark City, one in which we can briefly believe an entire room can fill with water so long as a towel is placed under the door. It's also a world, ultimately, in which this interspecies dating is the only coupling that's pure: Strickland forces his wife to taste blood during their notable sex scene, and Elisa's coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) has a lazy husband whose one and only active gesture in the entire film is really counterproductive. Elisa also assists an older male friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay man in a bad wig who can't hold down an advertising job, and who regularly buys disgusting pieces of gross, gelatinous pie because the young man selling them is cute.

With the most recent semi-shuttering of Universal's Dark Universe, one watches The Shape of Water and wonders why Guillermo del Toro wasn't offered whatever he asks for. The creature here (Doug Jones, of course) is as close to the creature from the Black Lagoon as one can legally get (for now...we'll see what Universal's lawyers make of it), and the story is moody and contained like so many of the original Universal monster movies are. It is a tad too long in the first half; right when you think things are building to a logical climax, there's still a lot more movie to go, including at least one really surprising detour into black and white.

Like Edward Scissorhands essentially was how Tim Burton saw himself, the mer-man here feels like a stand-in for del Toro, the weird guy who wants to use his powers for good but keeps getting hamstrung by stupid and evil guys (albeit ones with problems of their own) in suits who use him as a dispensable pawn. Perhaps, in that analogy, Fox Searchlight and its awards push for the director is, at long last, his personal Elisa.

Images: Fox Searchlight