On December 11th, the red-headed stepchild (or drunk uncle, or useless company HR manager, or grandpa “who doesn’t know better,” or friend who always avoids helping you move) of awards season announced its choices for its many poorly organized categories. Leading with seven Golden Globe nominations, The Shape of Water will surely walk away with some hardware, though, when Guillermo del Toro’s viscous fairytale is considered a drama and Get Out isn’t, attempting to predict the night’s outcomes feels about as imaginative as this movie’s description of where the fish-man’s (Doug Jones) dick comes from—which, as the fish-man’s mute paramour, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), implies, is stuffed somewhere inside the fish-man’s groin bump, peeking out like a duck’s curlicue weiner through a green cloaca when aroused. Sex is gross, OK?
Despite one’s antipathy towards the awards, the Golden Globes do admittedly afford some perspective on the upcoming Oscar race, and with The Shape of Water’s many acknowledgements, there is little to no chance that the Academy will ignore del Toro in its major categories. What’s more revealing is the Academy’s track record with films that are either odes to the glory and artistic transcendence of filmmaking (Birdman, The Artist) or “important,” as in, those films dealing with subjects old white people finally deign to confront (13 Years a Slave, Spotlight). The Shape of Water is both: a re-imagining of the dark fairytale world of the B-movie Universal Monster (if the Dark Universe led with del Toro’s take on Creature from the Black Lagoon and not The Mummy, maybe the franchise wouldn’t be rotten on arrival), infused with a classic Hollywood sensibility and reverence for the progenitors of our modern understanding of the genre picture, and it’s about a team of outsiders navigating the puritanical quandaries of the 1950s, dodging racism and ableism and homophobia and sexual harassment and the U.S. military industrial complex, every major character beset by the poisons of our 2017 zeitgeist writ boldly across a dieselpunk wonderland.
The Shape of Water could win Best Picture because there is no other film this year which so safely declares itself of this moment—and not because it sounds like the beginning of a horrible joke uttered by the aforementioned grandpa who doesn’t know any better (“A gay person, a mute, a black woman and a Russian spy walk into a diner…”). No, The Shape of Water is a reactionary film, all the way down to its sinew, a fantasy in which characters move throughout its runtime mostly motivated by opposition, and almost every ancillary character ends up a total disappointment. Just one day after new Alabama senator Doug Jones (the other Doug Jones) barely scrapes a win past a white supremacist pedophile, the mildly relieving cap to a year in which every media figure you love has somehow let you down, a year presaged by a catastrophic national election decided mostly by broken institutions and people voting against someone rather than for anything of honest merit, The Shape of Water feels like it operates in much the same way. That’s a bad thing.
Early in the film, we’re introduced to Elisa’s next-door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins, brilliant as always in a one-note role), who has a crush on the nameless soda jerk Giles and Elisa visit almost every day pretending to like the guy’s radioactive-looking franchise-freezed pies. Giles swoons over the young jerk, so much so that after a particularly big fight with Elisa over whether or not he’ll help her rescue the fish-man from the evil government lab, Giles attempts to confide in his young object of affection, risking a casual touching of hands. The soda jerk reacts violently, of course, Giles’s humiliation compounded by the jerk’s vicious treatment of a black couple attempting to enter the diner. Realizing the man he loves isn’t remotely anyone with whom he wants to spend any time—and finally having an excuse to stop eating those execrable key lime pies—Giles harrumphs back to Elisa and tells her he’ll help.
Driving the getaway van, Giles’s aid allows the rescue operation to succeed. If we are to track his hero’s journey, Giles refuses the call by first telling Elisa her plan won’t work, but then, upon witnessing his crush’s crushing shittiness, remembers that he has no one but Elisa, his best friend and fellow Outsider. Thus, the plot can move forward—not because Giles has found the courage within him to become the hero the fish-man needs, but because the life he wants is out of reach. There really is no choice there, only reaction. If Elisa wants Giles’s butterscotch tie behind the wheel of a fake laundry van, then she must hope that Giles makes the right choice even though he’s only really doing so because the alternative is sadder.
Later, during the high-stakes fish-man heist, Elisa’s literally stopped in her tracks by her best work friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer, thankfully able to shake the weird, crazy-regressive stereotyping with which she’s introduced), who very reluctantly signs on to the mission at the last possible moment. By that point, Zelda’s antipathy towards the establishment in general (and the government laboratory in particular) del Toro’s made clear, lingering on Zelda as she stabs out the cigarette she shouldn’t be smoking on company property or shrugs off the casual racism care of hilariously evil Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon, terrifying in an utterly nonsensical role). After, like Giles, refusing the call by standing in Elisa’s way and reminding her friend that they could both be in some serious doodoo, Zelda joins Elisa’s race against time, but not because she admires Elisa’s go-get-em attitude or because she thinks it’s a good idea to abscond with a monster the laboratory staff was explicitly told is the most important Asset they’ve ever housed. In that split-second of decision, Zelda reacts: There’s no better “fuck you” to the institutions that have kept her down as a woman of color than to steal that fish-man, and also Elisa is her friend more than her (horrible) bosses, so here we go?
So it is with all of The Shape of Water, characters not so much experiencing anything resembling a traditional narrative arc as they’re just reacting to the overwhelming forces around them, pushed toward the end of the film. Even Elisa bucks change throughout, the audience gleaning information about her past (how she became mute, her orphaned upbringing) in snatched conversations but rarely able to see much in the way of character growth or a hero’s journey (or, if we’re going to call this a fairytale, then what would amount to a moral). Perhaps Elisa, always on the fringes of society because of her disability, finally takes what she wants, but there is no indication that the Elisa at the beginning of the film (never reluctant to withhold her opinion or consider herself lesser than those with working vocal cords) is someone who wouldn’t do the same. The only indication of Elisa’s yearning for something more is in a brief shot in the film’s initial moments in which she stares lovingly at a pair of expensive-seeming high-heels through a store window.
Meanwhile, characters are “good men” until they suddenly aren’t, their actions inexplicable after a late-in-the-game, invisible pivot. None more inexplicable than that of Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, dependable), a Russian spy tasked with killing the fish-man before the Americans can kill the fish-man, but who instead, riding high on the wings of Science, assists Elisa and Zelda and Giles in breaking the fish-man out. Hoffstetler knows that his disobedience means the Russians will kill him, so when the time does come and the Russians do attempt to murder him, the surprise isn’t that the Russians are just as ruthless as the Americans, but that Strickland, crazed and suffering from gangrene, assassinates Hoffstetler’s would-be assassins, saving the man long enough for Hoffstetler to bleed out from a gut shot. Strickland, determined and delusional, screams at Hoffstetler to reveal Elisa and the fish-man’s whereabouts. Knowing he’s about to die, able to shuffle off the mortal plain with the reassurance that he was on the right side of this whole situation, Hoffstetler…tells Strickland where the fish-man is. His confession pushes the plot toward an inevitable showdown.
But not before Strickland, now keyed into the fish-man-stealing culprits, makes his way over to Zelda’s humble abode, where she’s making dinner yet again for her lazy-ass husband, Brewster (Martin Roach), a large man who nonetheless cowers in Strickland’s presence. For no other reason than that he’s a weak man, Brews gives up Elisa’s location, so that the only time we actually meet this character, he’s pitiful, serving nothing but the plot, disappointing his wife for the millionth time, providing an example of a crappy romantic relationship in contrast to the love between Elisa and the fish-man, which otherwise isn’t earned, because the only reason the film gives for that strange romance is the way in which it isn’t like “normal” relationships.
The Shape of Water, undoubtedly gorgeous, breathes with care: for the films that inspire him, for the tone of the worlds he created, for the physical art of filmmaking and for the monsters del Toro so obviously loves. Del Toro seems to forget that we might not love monsters as much as he does, though, and so we’re left scraping for motivations and inner lives that either ring with cliche or retreat from inspection by offering nothing in the way of an actual emotional arc. Such is the dynamic of our country: We don’t vote because we want a person to win; we vote because we don’t want the other person to. We don’t speak out because we feel strongly about issues; we speak out because silence is slightly worse. We don’t gather in the streets to gain something; we gather only because something is being taken away. Whatever we do is in response—the shape of water not a shape itself, but a reaction to more substantial stuff.
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.