Calendar dates aren’t crucial in fairy tales—but, all the same, you will guess The Shape of Water takes place in the early 1960s by the news images of civil-rights activism that flicker momentarily across a black-and-white console TV tucked into an attic apartment. It’s good to know approximately where the ground’s located, even when a setting, like this garret, is up in the air—even when the mood flows between elegy and romance, the music coils and pivots in a chromatic waltz, and the deeply colored gloom is shot through with the glistening of a magical creature from the wild. Let the film’s lonely top-floor neighbors change the channel at the sight of police dogs ripping into the dispossessed. Elisa, the heroine of The Shape of Water, and Giles, who narrates her story in voice-over, might try to exclude this struggle from their fairy tale, but brutal reality will seep in anyway.
Part Cinderella and part Beauty and the Beast, with a large admixture of Creature From the Black Lagoon and Dr. Strangelove, The Shape of Water might be summarized as the story of the love between a cleaning woman and a science experiment. She, Elisa, leaves the garret each evening to work the midnight shift at a military-research facility somewhere outside Baltimore: not a gleaming laboratory but a subterranean industrial site where curving, fluorescent-lit concrete tunnels are inset with clanking metal doors. He, nameless and inhuman, resides behind the heaviest of those barriers, chained in a saltwater tank so investigators can study his intricate dual system of gills and lungs. His captors—principal among them a government agent who enjoys torturing the scaly creature with a cattle prod, which he calls (in an echo of the Birmingham police attacks) an “Alabama howdy-do”—fear and despise this “asset” but believe he might yield a technological advantage against the lurking Soviets. Elisa, whose interest in the Cold War is limited to the piss she mops up in the men’s room, thinks the creature is fascinating and beautiful and keeps sneaking into the cavernous cell to communicate with him. He has a wordless repertoire of moans, roars, and burbles. She is mute but teaches him sign language, and soon discovers that the creature likes hard-boiled eggs and Benny Goodman.
It’s no mystery where this relationship is going, given that you’ve already seen Elisa masturbating in her grimy bathtub on a routine schedule, while a timer keeps her alert to the progress of her daily hard-boiled egg. Clock time, uncooked sex, semi-nostalgic dilapidation in grandiose spaces, and uncanny beings: These are long-standing preoccupations of writer-director Guillermo del Toro, and will lead in this film toward predictable consequences. The real question is whether, on the way toward the climax of The Shape of Water, the Birmingham police dogs will retain their integrity as solid horrors within a fluid fairy tale, or whether they’ll dissolve into an excuse for mere whimsy, plus some knockout production design. I had my doubts.
The Shape of Water is neither one of del Toro’s more darkly compelling fantasies, such as The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, nor a gleeful comic-book adventure like Hellboy. It operates in the slippery middle realm where filmmakers too often pretend to plumb the depths of myth, when all they’ve really done is toss off a miscellany of pop-culture references. You will understand my misgivings when I tell you that Elisa and Giles live above an old movie palace—hooray for Hollywood—and share a love for watching outdated soundstage musicals on TV. In this enthusiasm, they behave just as stereotypical outcasts are expected to do in films (especially Giles, a gay man in middle age), signaling the audience to extend an easy if condescending sympathy while enabling The Shape of Water to express approval of itself. Why, Elisa and Giles would just adore their own movie.
I won’t argue with viewers who think del Toro has made it too easy to unite a whole roster of the abused and marginalized (including, in Elisa’s case, someone who is literally silenced) by bringing them together around a captive freak of nature. Voiceless single women, gay men, African Americans, low-wage workers, liberal scientists in thrall to the national-security state, sequestered suburban housewives, and fans of obsolete forms of magazine illustration: The Shape of Water leaps to the defense of them all, like an issue of The Nation on acid. And yet it touches ground. Of all the big year-end releases, The Shape of Water is the one that most deeply moved me.
Its emotional power begins with Sally Hawkins’s performance as Elisa and always returns to Hawkins, but every actor has at least one indelible moment that rings true, often with genuine pain. The prolific character actor Richard Jenkins has never been better than as Giles, daring to touch a young man with whom he’s become infatuated and quietly suffering the smackdown. Octavia Spencer, playing Elisa’s best friend at work, is supplied for the umpteenth time in her career with coveralls, a mop, and a white man who assumes he can belittle her—the difference here being the nakedness of his insult, and her palpable struggle to hold in the shock. In the role of a scientist called Bob—not to reveal anything more about this character, or the plot—Michael Stuhlbarg imbues seemingly limitless detail into every morally clear self-assertion and exasperated tactical retreat of a man who is being undercut on all sides. As for Michael Shannon as the story’s rigid, strutting villain, he has been asked before to use his hooded eyes, Caligari frame, and Frankenstein jaw to alarm audiences. Here, bringing the character’s pride, ambition, and sanctimony to the surface, he gives the movie its true monster—in contrast to the creature, who is mimed by the indispensable Doug Jones under maybe 20 pounds of makeup and prostheses that he wears as easily as his own flesh.
But, Sally Hawkins. From the moment she blithely does a little tap dance to express Elisa’s pleasure at an old movie she’s watching, Hawkins’s lightness draws you in. Her feelings, instantly legible, play through every loose joint and each homey, sympathetic crinkle of her face with a charmed vivacity that makes you want to know more. Waiflike without seeming simple or easily victimized, her Elisa has the grit of a woman who works a hard shift and is often tired, but also the reserves of spirit of someone whom life has not entirely tamed—which is why you might be delighted, but not surprised, at the way Hawkins approaches the glowing vertical cylinder that’s part of the creature’s prison tank. She steps toward it like a ballerina: her right hand lifted to shoulder height, her left foot extended and trailing, her body cheated toward the camera so you can share in Elisa’s rapt expression.
All this is marvelous, but not as thrilling as the intensity Hawkins brings to the turning point of the movie, when Elisa insists to an unwilling Giles that they help the creature. Del Toro and his co-writer, Vanessa Taylor, have given Elisa a multipart tirade to fling at Giles, which Hawkins must deliver in subtitled sign language. And so, with fury added to her quickness, she more or less dances the speech. Her arms pound and slash; her chin drops like a gavel. Breathtakingly eloquent without speaking a syllable, she carries The Shape of Water back past the ’30s and ’40s musicals that Elisa loves, all the way to the silent era.
Whatever brutal realities may gather in the shadows, Hawkins earns them for the film, and does so in the best fairy-tale fashion: with playfulness and fervor. As for del Toro, he may have worked in his lighter mode this time but is still guilty of ravishment, and on an absurd scale. Why would he call this film The Shape of Water? Maybe because desire is life-sustaining, all-encompassing, buoyant, potentially suffocating (unless you learn to swim with it), and infinitely mutable. Others may think of desire in terms of flame, but del Toro has his own view of the subject—and the least you can say is it’s gorgeous.
By chance, the season brings us two more movies about intensely driven women, both as compulsively talkative as del Toro’s Elisa is silent, and both played by actresses who (unlike Hawkins) perform star turns designed to serve their own reputations as much as the story. Lesser pictures—but, in their own ways, I, Tonya and Molly’s Game reward your attention.
Written by Steven Rogers, directed by Craig Gillespie, and starring a very convincingly athletic Margot Robbie, I, Tonya is the biopic you didn’t know you wanted about figure skater and alleged goon Tonya Harding. It’s a deeply ambivalent movie—or maybe a dishonest one—which makes fun of the provincial, barely-working-class America in which Harding grew up—and then condemns you, the viewer, for having laughed.
An example of the basic joke: At the first interrogation over the notorious kneecapping attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan, Harding and her sometime husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), lie to the FBI, saying, “Well, we don’t know anything.” An FBI agent replies dryly, “That must make life difficult.”
An example of the punch line: Robbie, as today’s Harding, speaks directly to the movie audience about her plea bargain and banishment from competitive skating. “It was like being abused again—except by you. All of you.” It’s an effect, I suppose. A cheap one. Nevertheless, there’s something in Harding’s story to bring shame upon almost everyone, from the skating officials who shunned her for her poverty and rough manners to the journalists who used her as a meal ticket to the public who complacently treated her as a laughingstock. I, Tonya gives a breezy tour of the life, troubles, and social implications of Harding, both before and after “the incident,” often zooming and circling along the ice with her and cutting among competing, incompatible first-person narratives. Robbie is impressive, but Allison Janney steals the movie as Harding’s endlessly bitter and bullying mother.
Molly’s Game, another almost-true story, is the tale of a former competitive skier, Molly Bloom, who ran into a little trouble of her own with the law in 2014 for having run high-stakes, celebrity-heavy poker games in Los Angeles and New York. The first film to be directed as well as written by Aaron Sorkin, it has the advantage of his renowned geysers of dialogue (wonders of nature, you’d think, which miraculously spritz both hot and cold) and the disadvantage of his two-speed directorial gearbox. The characters and chatter either race headlong or else idle in neutral to give everyone a minute to breathe. You could set your watch by the alteration.
I don’t know who’s meant to be the star: Jessica Chastain, or Jessica Chastain’s cleavage. I understand the real Molly Bloom played up her looks, as well as her shrewdness with spreadsheets, odds, and client psychology, but maybe Sorkin shouldn’t have gone overboard treating his audience as she did her customers. Fortunately, Chastain above the neck performs marvels of elocution with Sorkin’s dialogue (while moderating the impression made below), and the mere mechanics of the poker trade are enough to keep you fascinated. A rock-solid Idris Elba plays Bloom’s initially reluctant lawyer.
Back to the subject of women who are not heard: One night in 1944, a group of young white men in rural Alabama grabbed Recy Taylor on her way home from church, raped her, and insouciantly let her walk back to her father, husband, and young daughter. Centuries of experience told the abductors that they’d merely exercised their prerogative, and that Taylor would remain silent. Instead, she went to the sheriff. He briefly pretended to take an interest. The chief rape investigator sent by the NAACP, Rosa Parks, did more.
In The Rape of Recy Taylor, documentarian Nancy Buirski assembles a collage of interviews, texts, music, and archival images (including excerpts of race movies) to tell the story of Taylor and Parks in the immediate wake of the crime and during its very long aftermath. The result is a striking hybrid: at once impressionistic and argumentative, focused on individuals but also alert to the role, frequently unheralded, that women played in the civil-rights movement. Not to be missed.
Also not to be missed: Daniela Vega, as the title character in Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman. Playing Marina, a waitress, nightclub singer, and strongly self-possessed trans woman in Santiago, Chile, Vega is on-screen for all but the first few minutes, carrying the film almost single-handedly through its shifts between melodrama, social-problem picture, and delirium. Vega’s feat is all the more remarkable given the trajectory of Marina’s story: apparently straight down, after her deeply loved partner (Francisco Reyes) dies suddenly and his family sets out to strip her of everything, from her keepsakes to her dignity to perhaps her liberty. If not for Vega’s vitality, and Lelio’s unerring pace, the story might be unbearable. Instead, despite all the heartache, it plays as a study in the resilience that flows from a woman’s fundamental decency. A Fantastic Woman was released only briefly in the United States to qualify for awards but should be back in theaters in the new year. Please look for it.