By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
“The Shape of Water” is a film that is in limited release now and will probably go into a wider Chicagoland distribution, once the new year hits. I can understand why it is in limited release, so that it can be considered for Oscar nods, of which I am sure it will receive many. This film is set in the early 60s, and there is some secret Government experiment going on in Baltimore. Michael Shannon, who has been in many performances at Chicago’s Steppenwolf and Red Orchid Theatre and owns a home in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, is the head agent named Strickland, in charge of everything, including running the work day duties of Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, who plays Zelda, and Sally Hawkins, who plays Eliza. Both women are on the janitorial staff, and Eliza is mute and unable to talk. She communicates through sign language, and Zelda is a great friend to help her throughout the work day.
An aquatic creature or amphibian, brilliantly played by Doug Jones, is delivered under great secrecy to the compound and the U.S. Government and the Russians have two different spins on just what should be done with the creature. The Government wants to kill it and use their findings for research, and an undercover Russian spy has been charged with delivering the amphibian to his commanders, under threat of death.
As Zelda and Eliza go through their daily routines, they see Strickland using electric prods to control the amphibian and they witness Strickland running out of the compound in agony after losing two fingers. In a twist on the old “ET” story, Eliza is endeared to the amphibian, because she sees that he is different and she is different—in that she is a mute—and she can relate to the creature being ostracized. So, she begins to share her eggs with him during her lunch break and teaching him a bit of sign language. Consequently, she devises a scheme to break out of the Government compound with the creature, after she has tamed him with music and just her companionship of coming to visit him daily.
Strickland isn’t aware of these visits, and Zelda has a clue but isn’t totally tuned in. After a while, however, the Russian spy named Dr. Hoffstetler wants to backtrack on his deal with the Russians and agrees to help Eliza with the escape plan. She is successful, and while keeping the creature in her tub immersed in salt water, they two begin a type of relationship that I describe as inter-species. Eliza is really into it, and the creature doesn’t seem to miss any steps at intimacy. They both seem to be catching up on needs they haven’t been able to experience—well, particularly in Eliza’s case.
In the end there is much gun warfare, as Strickland tries to keep his job by getting the creature back to the compound, and the Russians turn their anger upon Dr. Hoffstetler. The film reminds me of “ET,” where Eliza knows that the creature can only be happy if and when he is returned to the ocean. In “ET,” as I recall the young boy Elliot wanted to help ET return to his spaceship so he can go back home.
There is much fantasy and dream sequences in this film by noted director Guillermo del Toro, who also directed the “Hellboy” series. While some social media comments say that it’s sacrilegious and promoting beastiality, it is a great film to just escape into nowhere. For me, the icing on the cake is Shannon, who plays the best mean guy ever. And although there are a couple of lines or scenes that are racist (“That’s strange for you people,” as Strickland told Zelda, when she said she was an only child) and homophobic, these situations, in my opinion, merely reflect the year in which this movie is set.
Watch out for this film’s name to be all over the Oscar ballots. “The Shape of Water” is in limited release, but due to be everywhere soon.