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‘The Shape of Water’ defies societal norms, despite missed casting opportunities

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones star in “The Shape of Water.” Photo courtesy of TSG Entertainment.

In a world ravaged by heterosexual white males and with the government and “the man” affecting the everyday lives of many Americans, Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” proves that heroism, love, and power are not synonymous with societal norms. In his Cold War era love story, a mute women, Eliza (Sally Hawkins), and an amphibian man (Doug Jones) fall in love in a way that transcends words, both figuratively and literally. This story is powerful for many reasons in a time period when the marginalized need more recognition.

From the first scene, it is easy to recognize that Eliza, mute since childhood, is a woman of routine. She works at a government facility on the overnight cleaning shift with Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who is one of the few people who is able to interpret her sign language. We see Eliza making hard-boiled eggs, polishing her shoes, and following through her morning routine until one evening, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Russian spy and scientist working undercover at the United States government facility, brings the Amphibian Man in a transport container for Strickland (Michael Shannon), the antagonist and apparent leader of the government facility. Eliza’s daily routine begins to change due to her frequent encounters with the Amphibian Man. The nature of the visits switches from inquisitive and hesitant to increasingly romantic and moving. Eliza and the Amphibian Man begin to communicate, share meals, and even listen to music.

Strickland and the United States government, while completely unaware of the relationship being formed in the facility, plan to vivisect the Amphibian Man and examine his respiratory system in an effort to aid astronauts travelling to space. In 1962 the U.S., engaged in the space race with Soviet Russia, desperately wanted to beat Russia to successfully send a man to space. Eliza and Dr. Hoffstetler, realizing the Amphibian Man’s capacity to love and communicate, coordinate an escape to save his life.

As U.S. citizens, we are conditioned from a young age to believe that the government is inherently good and acts in our best interest. “The Shape of Water” turns that ideology on its head and makes audiences cheer for the disenfranchised and even enemies of the government to succeed in stealing a valuable asset from a government lab. The team that ultimately breaks the Amphibian Man out of the facility are a mute woman, a black woman, a gay man, and a Russian spy. They steal the Amphibian Man from a government facility led by white, heterosexual men where almost all other women and people of color work in sanitary or secretarial positions. The power in this film is in how the disenfranchised come together to do what is right.

While the message and motivation behind this film are powerful in themself, there are faults to the film. Hawkins, while terrific on screen, is not actually mute or disabled in any way. Del Toro had an incredible opportunity to cast a disabled woman in a role that would have provided a voice for those without one in an industry that almost exclusively has able-bodied people working in it. Female directors have a hard time being recognized for their work, women and people of color are not given lead roles in films as often as their white male counterparts, and people with disabilities are given even less opportunities. Tom Hanks’ portrayal of developmentally challenged Forrest Gump was given the Oscar for Actor in a Leading Role because he did a great job portraying a person with a disability. Hawkins has also been nominated for an Oscar for her work. One moment of success for people with disabilities acting is Peter Dinklage, who has received a Golden Globe for his work in “Game of Thrones,” but that is one success story washed away by countless able-bodied actors and actresses portraying people with disabilities.

Considering that the main critique of this film is rooted in deep, societal issues that have spanned decades, there is something to be said about the sheer beauty that Del Toro, Alexandre Desplat (the film score composer), and the entire visual effects department have done together. From the first scene to the last, both occurring underwater, the melodies and harmonies throughout the film create a feeling of waves cascading and a floating that one feels on the surface of water. The use of accordion, whistling, piano, and strings as the main components of composition make the music relatable but just unique enough that it pulls the audience into a different world. Of the 13 Oscars that “The Shape of Water” is nominated for, Desplat’s score seems like the most likely winner, even more than Del Toro’s nomination for the Best Director category.

“The Shape of Water” is not a film that will define 2017. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Call Me by Your Name,” and “Get Out” will be some of the namesakes years from now; however, this love story is one that is relevant today more than ever, and captures film making as an art form and a way to tell story beautifully. “The Shape of Water” is showing on a limited basis at the Fargo Theatre. This is the favorite for the Best Picture Oscar, and is a must see.


  1. Davis Fern Davis Fern February 2, 2018

    Three Billboards?!? Will be a “namesake” (?) years from now?

    The other three films are pretty groundbreaking. Not 3 billboards.

    • Jonathan Immel Jonathan Immel Post author | February 2, 2018

      Personally, I think it will be viewed as namesake for negative reasons compared to the positive reasons the other three will be remembered. I think Three Billboards is an insensitive portrayal of America by a British writer. The drama surrounding Three Billboards is well deserved considering how it depicts American rural community and how specifically black people are portrayed in the movie in such a negative way. I should have specified!

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