The Shape of Water

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor


Oftentimes when we think of fairy tales today, we think of children’s stories in the vein of Disney; wholesome fantasies about adventure, love, and imagination that teach us a moral. Historically that hasn’t been the case with this genre. Many of the fables we know today as popularised by the Victorian likes of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen find their origins in frightful folklore originally intended for adults. Indeed, the Brothers Grimm had to revise their original publication of Children’s and Household Tales upon receiving complaints that their stories were too sexual and violent. There has always been a dark heart to fairy tales, and it is one that del Toro has dedicated his career towards exploring in films like Pan’s Labyrinth. He has always been fascinated by the way fairy tales use monsters and beasts to represent the negative qualities of humanity and has often found these creatures to be profoundly human as a result. In his “fairy tale for troubled times”, del Toro seeks to tell a timeless fable for a modern audience in all of its wonder and darkness.

The film is set in the USA in 1962, an idealistic time in American history. The Second World War was a memory, the country was prospering, and the Kennedys were in the White House. However, beneath that glitzy surface of glory, growth, and glamour the reality wasn’t quite as wholesome. The oft-romanticised 1960s was a nightmarish time, a period when two nuclear superpowers were engaged in an ominous staring contest with the threat of global annihilation hanging in the balance. It was a mythological time for the United States where the ideology of ‘greatness’ contributed towards the intolerance and contempt of those who fell short of the All-American ideal, whether it be because of the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation, or their disability. It was an age of brutality and prejudice where the outcasts who lived in the margins of society had long been rendered speechless, unable to speak out and make their voices heard. In The Shape of Water this sense of voicelessness is represented literally by the central couple, the mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones).

Elisa is a cleaner who has long since lost her voice in an accident that left her neck disfigured. She lives alone above the Orpheum Cinema, an old-timey movie theatre that plays classic films to an almost empty auditorium. The one person she spends any time with when not at work is Giles (Richard Jenkins), an ageing, balding, closeted man whose days consist of black-and-white movies starring Betty Grable and Shirley Temple and fantasies about the young, handsome waiter at the local pie emporium. At night she works shifts at a secret government laboratory in Baltimore where the scientists are laboriously trying to work out how to get to the moon before the Russians. Working alongside her is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a matronly, vivacious African-American woman who speaks more than enough for the both of them. One night the facility receives a delivery in the form of an aquatic, humanoid creature. Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to study the creature that was once revered as a god by local Amazonian tribes and see what they can learn from it. Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), the military official in charge of the facility, however sees it as an affront to both man and God and orders the doctor to exterminate and dissect it.

Elisa encounters the Amphibian Man and sees not a monster or a god, but a forlorn being, as lonely and as voiceless as herself. She reaches out to the creature and shows him kindness, feeding him boiled eggs, playing him musical records, and teaching him sign language. She learns that the Amphibian Man is an intelligent creature capable of thought, reason, and empathy and that her affection for him is reciprocal. They form a bond with each other akin to Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête was clearly a source of inspiration), except that here the romance does not depend on the beast’s transformation into a handsome prince. The star-crossed lovers are attracted to each other as they are, both spiritually and physically. As fairy tales were modernised in the 19th and 20th centuries and targeted towards children, a point was made to remove the sexual content and connotations of such fables as Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood so that these stories might reflect the chaste (or, if you prefer, repressive) values of their times. In his contemporary adult’s fairy tale, Del Toro feels that it is more honest to allow the couple’s romantic feelings to manifest themselves as sexual desires and does not shy away from portraying it. Beauty and the Beast consummate their love and it is treated and shot like a romantic coupling between two souls, rather than in any kind of a fetishised or exploitative way.

However, in the midst of this “tale of love and loss” there is “the monster who tried to destroy it all”. This is Strickland, a demonstrative, almost stereotypical, symbol of the toxic masculinity of 1960’s America. He lives in the suburbs with his blonde 1950s wife (with whom sex is silent, dour, and missionary) and has two kids, a military career, and a Cadillac. He is also a sadistic bully who preys on the ‘Others’ and demonises them. He eroticises Elisa’s disability and sexually harasses her, he is unabashedly racist towards Zelda, he viciously dominates the physically inferior Dr. Hoffstetler, and he gets glee and elation from torturing the defenceless creature with his cattle prod. At one point he pushes the Amphibian Man too far and provokes him into lashing out, losing two fingers in the process. As the rotting flesh on his hand deteriorates and spreads with each passing day, so does the rot devour his soul more and more like a cancer until it finally drives him well and truly into a vengeful, furious state of madness. He is a familiar type of villain from the Gothic literature and art that has inspired del Toro throughout his career, a man whose heart is so black that he proves himself the real monster of the story, but an updated one whose outdated yet prevalent values are as relevant today as they are harmful.

Like many fairy tales, The Shape of Water is not a very probable story. As well as drawing on elements of fantasy, it takes illogical leaps in its plot and a lot of what follows suspends belief. But then, that’s why the magic of it all is so crucial. One of the great things about fairy tales as a genre is that their stories don’t have to follow logical plots if the emotions are strong enough to lead the way instead (The Wizard of Oz and La Belle et la Bête are both great examples of this). Part of the reason why this film succeeds is because the actors do such a tremendous job of conveying the emotions driving their actions. Hawkins is so expressive in a role that goes entirely unspoken (save a musical fantasy sequence in the style of Ginger Rogers and an aquatic Fred Astaire) she could have been a Hollywood silent movie star had she been born a century earlier. There were scenes where Elisa spoke more with her eyes than any actress could possibly have said with a hundred pages of dialogue. Opposite her, Jones (who has brought so many of Del Toro’s monsters to life in his previous films) delivers a remarkable physical performance as the Amphibian Man, a creature who speaks through musical cries, expressions, and movement.

Another reason The Shape of Water works so well as a fairy tale is the dreamlike atmosphere del Toro and his team were able to create. The film often employs watery imagery from the constant rainfall to the aquatic blues and greens of the sets and costumes to the dim lighting and wavering shadows. We see all this through the lens of a camera that hovers as if it were floating and which flows seamlessly across scenes. It all invokes the feeling of being submerged in the underwater world that we see in the opening scene and watching the film often felt like watching a dream. Accompanying that otherwordly sense throughout is the film’s musical score, a wistful composition that expresses what cannot be said in words. The feelings of melancholy and wonder that emerged were so overwhelming I couldn’t help but be swept away by the magic of it all. The Shape of Water is a beautiful, moving tale of love and loss and of finding your voice. It is a breathtaking, stunning picture that conjures profound emotions and explores the enigmas and ethics of humanity in the way that only fairy tales can.

★★★★★

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Nocturnal Animals

Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen

Director: Tom Ford

Writer: Tom Ford


After having worked as the creative director for both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford has become a master of blending art, style and beauty in his films. In Nocturnal Animals he has created one of the most meticulously crafted and striking films of the year. It is an ambiguous film and the meaning of Ford’s images is not always clear, as with the very first shots which provoked outrage among both critics and viewers for what they deemed to be gratuity or body shaming. I must confess that I’m somewhat confounded by those images as well. I am restraining myself from revealing the nature of these images because I think the shock must have a role to play in the effect that Ford is going for. I will say that these images did make me feel uncomfortable but they also made me critically aware of my discomfort. Now I’m asking myself whether I was right to feel uncomfortable at all, a question that I suspect Ford must have expected from many of his viewers. This film is so perplexingly uncomfortable and beautiful at once that I think Ford might have been disappointed had I not left the screening feeling confounded.

After hosting a conceptual art exhibit at her gallery Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receives a manuscript for a novel penned by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Susan, living a dejected life of passionless work and love with her adulterous husband Hutton (Arnie Hammer), is captivated by the novel that has been dedicated to her. It tells the dark story of family man Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) whose holiday with wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and India (Ellie Bamber) takes a horrific turn when they encounter a gang of reprobates led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). This story provokes memories of Susan’s relationship with Edward and the troubles that drew them apart. He wanted her to pursue her artistic calling whereas she wanted him to be more realistic about his literary aspirations. As Susan reads more of Edward’s novel it becomes clearer to her that the disturbing, devastating story he has conceived is an allusion towards the terrible betrayal that destroyed their marriage.

There are three interrelated narratives being told that Ford blends together into one incredible whole. One is the story of an utterly miserable person reflecting on the choices that have led her to where she is. The other is a dark and twisted tale of loss and revenge. Finally, there is the story of an idealistic romance that woefully (and perhaps inevitably) ends in heartbreak. I was particularly struck by how invested and horrified I, much like Susan, was by the second narrative considering that it’s a fictional story within a fictional story. That narrative alone would have made for a compelling film complete with stellar performances by Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon as a worn-down lawman with nothing left to lose. The ultimate story that is being told however adds even greater depth and darkness to what is already an unsettling tale. Isla Fisher’s character for instance serves Edward’s story not only as a wife for his protagonist but also as a clear stand in for Susan. When we see what happens to Tony’s wife later in the novel, it invites all sorts of compelling questions about what exactly Edward is trying to tell his ex-wife by sending her this manuscript and dedicating it to her, especially in light of what we later learn about their marriage.

We see Adams play Susan as both a naïve romantic full of dreams and fancies and as a shell of her former self rendered numb by her cold, empty life. Even when Adams is simply reading the manuscript, she is performing. Her distraught reactions reinforce the ominous nature of Edward’s story every bit as much as Ford’s tone and style in his representation. In this film Susan undergoes a crisis of conscience as she contemplates whether she is being punished for an awful mistake and Adams is to be applauded for deftly conveying her tumultuous, troubled state of mind in a remarkably restrained, understated performance. Gyllenhaal’s Edward also provides an intriguing figure as the Susan’s spurned, estranged ex-husband. The film sets him up as an almost ethereal figure by providing us with two different versions of him: we see the Edward that Susan remembers in her memories and his representation of himself in the novel he’s written. Thus as the film draws closer to the climatic meeting between them, the more intrigued we are to see who he is today and how he really feels about Susan.

The final scene is one that has sparked much debate amongst viewers. Some might call it a confounding ending, but I for one would expect nothing less from such a confounding film as Nocturnal Animals. The film is fascinating in its dark and twisted nature and is almost sickening in its beauty. You want to look away but you just can’t. The cinematography, the colours, the music; it is a film that completely envelops you and refuses to let go. Some scenes are entirely unbearable to watch and yet, much like when I first saw Blue Velvet and A Clockwork Orange, my eyes were fixed squarely on the screen the entire time. It isn’t as violent a film as those two are but it is similar in its dreadful intensity and disturbed artistry. Most of the wounds that are inflicted in this film are emotional ones (the ones in the “real world” anyway) but they are severe all the same. Nocturnal Animals is also an ambiguous film, the kind that believes in providing the pieces to the puzzle but won’t assemble them for you. Watching this film was a gruelling experience but it was also a mesmerising one.

★★★★★

Midnight Special

Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard

Director: Jeff Nichols

Writer: Jeff Nichols


With the blockbusters of today being almost entirely made up of sequels, prequels, adaptations and reboots characterised by massive scale, abundant special effects and action-driven stories, it’s interesting how closely our modern independent movies resemble the blockbusters of 20-30 years ago. When watching Midnight Special for instance the influence of Steven Spielberg was unmistakable. If Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. were to be released today, films that feature original character-driven stories, few (if any) movie stars, and strong but restrained use of special effects, it’d be difficult to imagine them being advertised as blockbusters. The advances in technology over the past few decades means that independent filmmakers like Jeff Nichols now have the means to make these kinds of films. Not only is Midnight Special impressive visually but it is also a smart, intimate story about faith and parenthood.

The film starts off ambiguously with a man called Roy (Michael Shannon) hiding in a hotel room with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and his childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). We learn that the boy possesses otherworldly powers and was recently liberated by his father from a religious cult who is now wanted by the government. Roy reveals that he must take his son to a certain place by a specific date despite not knowing why or what will happen. All he knows is that it is a mission of paramount importance. Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) the leader of the FBI investigation into this case learns of the boy’s powers and seeks to learn more of the mystery behind their quest. Along the way Roy enlists Sarah (Kristen Dunst), Alton’s mother, for her help with this endeavour. With only days before this unknown event is supposed to take place, Roy will stop at nothing to protect his son and to help him fulfil his calling whatever it may be.

I was unsure of what to make of this film after seeing it mainly because it is such an ambiguous movie. Although the mystery surrounding Alton’s abilities and quest serves as the dramatic crux of the movie, very few answers are provided. This isn’t necessarily a weakness because sometimes the mystery is the point. The real question is whether the mystery has stimulated you or just left you confused. After seeing how the film ended I was initially left dissatisfied by the lack of an explanation. Even though I saw what happened I still didn’t know what the actual purpose of Alton’s mission was or what was actually accomplished. Then it occurred to me that perhaps I was missing the point. After all one of the vital themes depicted in the movie is faith, an idea that is defined by the unknowable. By asking what Alton’s mission was I might as well be asking what was in the suitcase in Pulp Fiction. That’s not what the film is about. This is a film about how people react to that which they don’t understand, the bond between a parent and their child, and the search for meaning and purpose. Such themes are ambiguous and mysterious in nature and whatever answers there are to be found must be discovered by the viewers themselves. That is how faith works.

It is clear that Nichols is putting a lot of faith in his audience as very little is spelled out for them. For example in the opening minutes of the movie it isn’t actually stated that Roy is Alton’s father. It doesn’t need to be because Nichols trusts that we can figure it out ourselves based on their body language. That’s the sign of a good visual storyteller. The imagery in this film is so clear and effective that Nichols is able to escape making use of exposition that might have otherwise stolen away from the mystery. Little is explained and yet so much is felt. It also helps that the performances, particularly Shannon’s, are strong enough that the qualities of the characters are readily apparent through their gestures and expressions. One needs only to see how Roy holds and looks at his son to know that he is going to do everything in his power to keep Alton safe.

The ambiguity and elusiveness of Midnight Special will definitely put some people off; there is no way around that. It is a film that needs to be analysed and questioned in order to be appreciated. It is certainly a strange film as it delves deeply into the supernatural and the unknown. Those who watch Midnight Special looking for straight answers are not going to find them because it isn’t that kind of film. It is a contemplative exploration of mysterious themes that is supposed to raise unanswerable questions. The beauty is in the mystery itself. I can certainly say that this film has stimulated me on an intellectual level, but I did also feel a little underwhelmed on an emotional level. Although I remember the characters and did follow them all the way through, I never felt like I really got to know them or was able to form an attachment with them in the way that I did with Spielberg’s films. Still Midnight Special is an engaging, thoughtful film that stirs the imagination and stimulates the mind.

★★★★