The Best Picture Winners: The Shape of Water (2017)

| March 6, 2018

It would have been irresponsible for me to end this Best Picture journey with Moonlight.  So, here is a bonus – the newest entry in Oscar’s top-prize scrapbook . . . 

The Best Picture winners, in many cases, have a way of signaling the times in which they were made.  That’s no less applicable for The Shape of Water which joins the list of Oscar’s big winners at a moment in history when the beacon call for diversity was sounded with furious anger over those who attempted to shut them out.  Here was a movie that gave sanction to those who felt themselves shut out of the world.  And signalling to those who had been made to feel like outcasts, it is oddly fitting that the movie comes wrapped in the guise of a monster movie.

Yes, The Shape of Water is technically a monster movie, albeit closer to Beauty and the Beast than Godzilla.  It has an aquatic creature who has human dimensions but the at the same time the anatomical characteristics of something that crawled from the sea (basically, its The Creature from the Black Lagoon).  And yet, here is a strange movie that upends the trope of the creature trying to kidnap or kill the heroine and has the two entering into a strange and kind-of touching love affair.  If it came from any other director, you might find this concept puzzling, but since this is a fairy tale that comes from Guillermo del Toro, the oddity of this story isn’t all that surprising.

You also know that del Toro is a director who is not going to rest his film on only one level.  The subtext is what gives the film its juice.  The movie is set in 1962 and the fishman isn’t the only unwanted creature in the room.  For one, there is a woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who is mute.  Her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is a black woman.  And Elisa next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a middle-aged gay man.  In a dozen or more ways, this is a movie about oddities and outcasts pressed into a time in which social restrictions and Cold War paranoia were helping to keep them “in their place.”  Does the treatment of the aquatic gill man represent the treatment of the blacks, gays and the handicapped at the time?  Perhaps.

The Shape of Water is a movie about loneliness, no matter what your shape or affliction or orientation, pushed upon those who, at the time, society would rather not deal with.  This is 1962, when the space race, the Cold War and the rising tide of racial revolution are in the air.  Elisa and Zelda are cogs in the government machine, functionary custodians at a Baltimore government installation called OCCAM (get it?)  Their job is to keep their head down, and their eyes on their mop, but something strange is banging around in one of the labs.  It is – SPOILER ALERT – the fishman, which has been caught and is being treated like a rabid animal.  Elisa bonds with the creature, falls in love with it and eventually . . . yeah.  That happens.  The message, I suppose, is the exposition of love unhooked from bonded commonalities.  Elisa and the fishman bond in their mutual silence – a touch, a look, a feeling.  There is something genuine between the two.

That, at least, the film’s lovely fairy tale first half.  The second half is not as pliable and, for me, becomes an extended retread of E.T.  That doesn’t make the film bad, but it does kind of take the full-blooded spirit of the film’s first half and falls into a standard rescue while the bad guys attempt to recapture the creature and return him to his chains.  While I appreciate the love story that develops, I am left to wonder in what wild directions the film might have gone in its third act.  For that, I’m left with a very good film, not a great one.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.