It is hard to describe “The Shape of Water.”
On one level, it is a horror movie, with a character that looks like the Gill Man from those “Creature from the Black Lagoon” movies.
Then it looks like a fable about a scrub woman, a la Cinderella, who moves through the paces of her life with nothing to look forward to than cleaning the messes made by others.
It also seems like a cautionary tale about the government and how there is a shadow side to those in authority who are really up to no good.
But there is something more here.
Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro takes these elements and weaves for us a story about Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning woman that lives in Baltimore during the early ’60s.
She works in a secret government lab that houses a creature, an amphibian man played by Doug Jones, who was brought up from the Amazon by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).
Strickland is a government agent that has some very strong opinions about many things, but mostly about the creature.
Elisa and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover the creature through the need of a clean-up after the creature acted to remove some of Strickland’s fingers.
As the story moves on, Elisa becomes attracted to the creature and begins to develop a relationship with him. Their attachment does not depend on either being able to speak. They both relate without words.
We marvel at Elisa coming to the creature, at first bringing boiled eggs. Then, she plays Benny Goodman records for him. Finally, she teaches the creature sign language as a means of communication. And the attraction grows.
Added to the story is Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), the scientist who is tasked with oversight of the creature. He tries to advocate for a detailed study on the creature.
There is Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay man, friend and neighbor to Elisa. We see clearly his longing and the loneliness of his life, but he stands by Elisa in what she wants to do.
Del Toro has made a movie that speaks to those of us who felt like we never fit in with the rest of the world. All of these characters are part of the Island of Misfit Toys that del Toro creates.
It is the character of Strickland that makes the lives of these people miserable.
He is the only “normal” person in the story. He is a family man who is presented as being upright and moral, but he does not have any qualm with doing whatever he thinks necessary to accomplish his mission.
He is a sadist, who uses his cattle prod to shock the creature into submission.
Strickland offers theological comment about the creature. He says that he knows that he (Strickland) is made in the image of the Lord, while declaring his knowledge that the Lord does not look like the creature.
What I saw in this is the problem created when we, the church folk, decide who is worthy of dignity and compassion and who is not.
Too often we decide who is made in God’s image and who is not based on what we see in the mirror and who we meet not in that mirror.
What are we to do with those that do not match our idea of personhood? That is the question I think del Toro is asking us. How do we relate to those that look different than us, act different than us, even love different than us?
“The Shape of Water” is nominated for the Oscar’s Best Picture this year and has 12 additional nominations.
It is a fine film with a very pointed message, done in an artful, loving way. I enjoyed watching this fable unfold on the screen.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Cast: Sally Hawkins (Elisa Esposito), Michael Shannon (Richard Strickland), Octavia Spencer (Zelda Fuller), Richard Jenkins (Giles), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr. Robert Hoffstetler)
The movie’s website is here.