Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless – like water. Now, you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or creep or drip or crash. Be water, my friend.
More profound words have rarely been uttered in TV dramas.
Bruce Lee wrote those lines for his character’s dialogue in the 1970s TV series Longstreet, for an episode where he was giving the hero, blind detective Mike Longstreet (James Franciscus), a valuable lesson before the latter’s showdown with a violent bully. They have since become part of the late martial arts legend’s legacy.
So, water is supremely malleable yet also incredibly powerful; over time, it can even cause mountains to crumble.
And that brings us to The Shape Of Water, Guillermo Del Toro’s highly accoladed adult fantasy which, the director has stated in interviews, is a tale about a force as shapeless and powerful as water: love.
Without getting all sappy and Titanic-ky (I mean the movie, not the ship) about it, Del Toro goes to great lengths in his film to show both the redeeming and liberating power of love.
Along the way, we also find examples of how it can trip people up, make fools of us all, and even drive otherwise level-headed folk to take huge risks in its name.
This particular romance is way more “out there” than any love story that jumps social divides, as it crosses the species barrier. It’s a mostly fascinating yet occasionally disturbing extrapolation of those old monster movies like Creature From The Black Lagoon (no doubt, a spiritual ancestor).
Set in 1962 “in the last days of a fair prince’s reign”, the film revolves around Elisa Esposito (a luminous Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaner at a secret government facility.
She falls in love with an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones) that is being studied there after it/he was unceremoniously dragged from his habitat in the Amazon. And, we learn through gestures, soulful expressions and gurgles (vocalised, in part, by Del Toro himself), her feelings are reciprocated.
The force of Del Toro’s vision is such that we can overlook such far-out moments as a fantasy musical number when Elisa imagines herself singing You’ll Never Know and dancing with Amphibian Man (as he is called in the credits). Or the patent silliness of her closeted neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) having a refrigerator full of half-eaten key lime pie slices he bought just to get to know the pie vendor he has a crush on.
(A lot has been said about Jenkins and Octavia Spencer’s big-hearted janitorial colleague as great supporting characters; for me, the MVP is Michael Stuhlbarg’s conflicted scientist, the closest the film has to a stalwart hero despite his affiliations.)
What I couldn’t overlook, however, was the utter one-dimensionality of the film’s central antagonist, a suit-wearing military type named Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).
Sure, Shannon is often chilling as he single-mindedly oversees the study of Amphibian Man, all in the name of giving the United States an edge in the Space Race, while convinced that his cause will be more speedily served by vivisecting the poor gillman.
But Del Toro has also stated that his choice of era for setting the film is not so much to glorify Kennedy-era “Camelot”, but to depict the problems (racism, violence, sexism, social divisions) at America’s core even in those seemingly halcyon days.
By pouring these ills almost entirely into Strickland, however, he has created instead a movie monster so totally unsympathetic and inhuman that he actually diminishes the film. Think of this bad fella as a clumsier attempt at a hateful villain than the ruthless Captain Vidal of Del Toro’s much greater 2006 dark fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth.
There is still a lot to applaud the filmmaker and his stellar cast and crew for. Mainly, the way they pick up this odd ball and run flat-out with it all the way to a finish line that got me a little choked up despite my earlier misgivings about its central (human) monster.
The director’s big wins for this film, to me, seem more like lifetime achievement honours than for its own merits; from people who have admired his body of work so much and only now, in this audacious but somehow still mainstream effort, found something “worthy” of pinning honours on him.
I’d like to think that there is greater work yet to come from him. Water may crumble mountains but Del Toro’s fans can hope that The Shape Of Water will finally build a case for his long-gestating masterwork, At The Mountains Of Madness. Hey, if a gal can love a fish outside of a H.P. Lovecraft story, we can all dream.
The Shape Of Water
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Hewlett
GSC International Screens