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The Shape of Water is a Compassionate, Heartfelt (R-Rated) Fairy Tale

<i>The Shape of Water</i> is a Compassionate, Heartfelt (R-Rated) Fairy Tale

Definitely not for kids, writer-director Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water is imaginative filmmaking of the highest order, marred only slightly by a one-dimensional villain who spouts distorted religious ideas to justify his sadism. 4.5 out of 5.


In 1962 America, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute, works as a cleaning lady at a top-secret government lab. The lab's newest "asset" is an amphibious creature (played by Doug Jones) captured in the Amazon. Though treated by government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) as an object to be feared, the creature connects with Elisa, who's drawn to a being that, like her, can't speak audibly and therefore has no idea of how she is "incomplete."

Elisa isn't the only one who takes a keen interest in the beast. She finds allies in co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins)—an African-American woman and a homosexual artist respectively. All outcasts of one sort or another, they work together to protect and liberate the creature from the government, from Russian agents who want to know more about the creature, and from the paranoid Strickland, who wants to keep it subdued at all costs.

What Works?

Almost everything. Hawkins gives one of her most expressive performances as the mute Elisa. She's a joy to watch, as is every frame of this gorgeously shot fantasia. Jenkins gives a deeply sympathetic performance as a heart-broken neighbor, and whether or not you approve of these characters' choices, the film's message about seeing the person beneath his or her supposed deficiencies is compassionate and heartfelt.

What Doesn't?

There's a lot of story in The Shape of Water, and some parts are weaker than others. Shannon's villain is one-note, and that note is anchored in poorly reasoned religious ideas about what it means to be made in God's image. Then there's a subplot about the Soviets, appropriate to the Cold War time frame, but more a distraction to the central relationship in the film. The sexuality of the film—including a woman having sex with a creature—is left somewhat mysterious in terms of its mechanics (a humorous scene has Zelda asking Elisa about how sex between them might work) even as characters are shown, head to toe, while making love.

Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes

The film has several scriptural references, including a movie theater that's showing a biblical epic, "The Story of Ruth." Most of the Bible-quoting comes from Strickland, who uses Scripture—including a couple of scenes where he recounts the story of Samson and Delilah—to support his suspicions and destructive aims. He also explains his disdain for the creature by saying that humans are created in the Lord's image. "You wouldn't think that's what the Lord looks like, would you?" he asks, referring to the creature.

The creature is said to have been worshiped as a god in the Amazon, and one character declares that the creature is a god after seeing it exhibit powers he can't explain.

Zelda says that her mother must not have "read the Good Book close enough" and later tells Elisa, "We're gonna burn in hell"—a line played for laughs in the moment.

Elisa states an important theme of the story by saying that when the creature looks at her, he doesn't know what she lacks or how she is incomplete.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)

  • MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language
  • Language/Profanity: Lord's name taken in vain; several uses of foul language, including the f- and m-f-words; discussion of masturbation; a crude reference to a man's finger; racially charged comments.
  • Sexuality/Nudity: The film is quite explicit at times, starting early with a brief scene of Elisa masturbating in a bathtub; we see her undress and see her bare backside and a breast, and then full frontal female nudity; Elisa's neighbor is a homosexual who says if he were young again, he'd have sex a lot more; Strickland urinates in the men's room while Elisa and Zelda are cleaning it; a scene of a man having sex, with his rear end exposed; Giles pines for the man who works behind the counter at a restaurant, but when Giles puts his hand on the man's hand, the man orders him out and says Giles isn't welcome in his "family restaurant."
  • Violence/Crime: A man's fingers are severed and later reattached, but they become discolored; blood from the wounds is seen; a cattle prod is used to subdue the creature; an encounter between the creature and a cat ends in grisly fashion; gunfire, and a man is shot in the face and then tortured; a man is struck by a board; racial discrimination.
  • Drugs/Alcohol: Scenes of smoking and drinking; Strickland takes pills.

The Bottom Line

RECOMMENDED FOR: Those who love sumptuous imagery and soundtracks driven by older musical recordings will swoon for The Shape of Water, although they should be prepared for some strongly R-rated content.

NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: The film has an old-fashioned quality, drawing on the nostalgia of an earlier decade and earlier parts of film history. But this is not at all a film for younger viewers, and may be too much for those who like their romances presented in a more chaste manner. Also, moments of lurid violence are few, but they are shocking.

The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro, opens in limited theaters December 1, 2017, wider December 8. It runs 123 minutes and stars Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg. Watch the trailer for The Shape of Water here.

Christian Hamaker brings a background in both Religion (M.A., Reformed Theological Seminary) and Film/Popular Culture (B.A., Virginia Tech) to his reviews. He still has a collection of more than 100 laserdiscs, and for DVDs patronizes the local library. Streaming? What is this "streaming" of which you speak? He'll figure it out someday. Until then, his preferred viewing venue is a movie theater. Christian is happily married to Sarah, a parent coach and author of Hired@Home and Ending Sibling Rivalry.

Publication date: December 7, 2017

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