In a recent interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” director Guillermo del Toro said his latest creature feature, The Shape of Water, is a movie that on the one hand is a tribute to his love of monster movies, including Universal Studios The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and on the other hand a love story. The Shape of Water is indeed a love story between Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning lady at a Cold War-era government facility, and the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones). More impressive, though, is the way that the film rewrites some of the classic monster tropes while serving as a metaphor for the Trump age and xenophobia.
The film will probably draw some comparisons to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, one of the later installments of the Universal Monster films. The Amphibian Man looks incredibility similar to the Gil-man/Creature. In the NPR interview, del Toro states that he was drawn to some of the visuals of the 1954 film, especially the scenes of the Gil-man under water, watching a young woman swim, unbeknownst to her. Like Frankenstein’s Monster, both Mary Shelley’s creation and director James Whale’s Universal Studios adaptation of the Monster, the Amphibian Man is a sympathetic creature, one pulled out of a river in South America by a misogynistic brute/government worker, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and tortured by him throughout the film. However, unlike the Universal Monsters, the Amphibian Man never kills anyone or poses a threat. He is a creature of beauty with blue lights on his scales and the ability to heal wounds with his touch.
The real monster in the film is Richard Strickland. Not only does he constantly harm the creature using a taser/billy club that he refers to as his “Alabama stick,” he is also incredibly sexist. He silences his wife during sex and propositions Elisa, confessing it’s a turn- on that she can’t talk and that’s how he likes his women. When he isn’t trying to maintain power over women, he demeans the cleaning staff, who he deems as beneath him. Strickland is also like Sheriff Jim Clark, the baton-wielding segregationist who took pride in assaulting Civil Rights demonstrators during the march on Selma for voting rights. A few times, he makes racist comments towards Elisa’s friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a black cleaning lady.
Those who help the Amphibian Man escape are also the Other. Elisa is mute. Zelda is an African American woman in the Cold War age, and Elisa’s neighbor/friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a gay man. All of them relate to and show empathy towards the Amphibian Man because they know what it is like to be different, to be thought of as less than human by people like Strickland.
Though the film is set in 1962 and includes a Cold War subplot, the film, like much of del Torro’s work, is metaphorical and can be read as a love story/monster movie for the Trump age. A lot of Strickland’s dialogue could have been said at a Trump campaign rally when he talks about Muslims, immigrants, or anyone non-white, for that matter. del Torro takes the classic monster tropes and rewrites them so that the monster isn’t really the one we have to fear. The real bad guy is the man in power who wants to silence women and thinks that the Amphibian Man should be killed simply because it is different. As the film progresses, Strickland grows more monstrous and less human, both physically and mentally. The film is also unique because it tells the story from the perspective of the early 1960s help. It is their story as much as it is the monster’s story. It is likely that The Shape of Water will be an Oscar contender. It is visually striking and has a powerful story. It is appropriate for this current moment without being preachy.