Elisa Esposito is invisible.
No, not literally, mind you. She doesn’t have any superpowers. You wouldn’t have any problem seeing her if you were looking right at her.
Elisa is simply the kind of person no one ever really looks at. She works the graveyard shift as a cleaning custodian at a secretive government research facility outside Baltimore. A depersonalized minion doing a mindless and thankless job, she’s functionally nameless and faceless, too.
And voiceless, as well. That’s because Elisa—who was discovered as an orphaned baby near a river—is mute.
Elisa has exactly two friends, with whom she communicates via sign language. There’s her opinionated coworker, Zelda Fuller, who talks enough for both of them. Then there’s her neighbor in an adjacent apartment, Giles, an aging, angry, unemployed artist who spends his days painting and tentatively flirting with a much younger waiter at a local diner.
Yes, Elisa’s anonymous life is about as mundane as it could be. Until one particular night, that is …
On that night in 1962, a container arrives at her facility. A big, metal container. A container with windows and water. A container with—something—trapped inside. Something that wants out.
Government operative Richard Strickland has shepherded the container all the way from the wilds of the Amazon River, where he caught whatever lurks inside. He and bespectacled researcher Dr. Robert Hoffstetler can hardly wait to discover the secrets of the so-called “Asset” contained within.
It’s top-secret stuff, of course. In a top-secret facility. The kind of world-changing scientific phenomena that only a privileged few have the clearance to see. Well, those folks plus the invisible cleaning lady who wheels her cart in to mop the room where the Asset is housed. An invisible cleaning lady who can’t resist her curiosity to discover what Strickland captured in South America.
Turns out, that the amphibious Asset is just as curious about Elisa as she is about him.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Elisa soon discovers that the container holds a tall, amphibious, merman. Strickland treats it as a dimwitted monster—acting monstrously toward it himself, as we’ll see. But Elisa sees a being that, despite their obvious interspecies differences, is a lot like her: someone (not something) trapped and voiceless, lonely and longing.
Elisa secretly begins visiting the room where the Asset is kept, bringing him eggs to eat, playing him music and slowly teaching him rudimentary sign language. With Elisa, the merman is playful, gentle and curious. Mutual fascination leads to a kind of friendship. Describing the creature’s affection for her, she signs to Giles (which we see translated in subtitles), “He doesn’t know what I lack or how I am incomplete. He sees me for what I am, as I am. He’s happy to see me every time, every day.”
When Elisa learns that the government has ordered the Asset to be terminated, she’s determined to free her fishy friend. Obviously, doing so is illegal. But her determination is compassionate and tenderhearted—similar to, say, Elliot’s determination to get E.T. back to space instead of handing him over to government scientists. She angrily tells Giles, whose help she’s begging for, “I can either save him, or let him die.”
Giles and Zelda eventually agree to help Elisa—though both have reservations at first. Likewise, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler—who mostly goes by Bob—is aghast at the government’s decision to euthanize the Asset. When he learns that Elisa’s plotting to emancipate the creature, he helps as well.
In a poignant scene in which Giles is tending to the creature by himself, he wonders aloud, “Have you always been alone? Have you ever had someone? Do you know what happened to you?” Giles suggests that these are questions that he, too, struggles with.
Elisa’s apartment is above a movie theater where two scenes take place. Both times, the 1960 movie The Story of Ruth is playing. We hear a female character say, “I have sinned. I have offended God.” There’s also a verbal reference to “the Bible movie.”
Zelda’s middle name is Delilah, which prompts Strickland to give her a demeaning recitation of the story of Samson and Delilah—twice. It’s the first of several occasions in which Strickland, apparently a Christian, quotes or references different biblical themes. He tells Zelda and Elisa, “The world is sinful.” He says, “We’re created in the Lord’s image,” then adds that the Asset clearly is not. “You don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?” He also describes the asset as being “ugly as sin.” We hear a passing verbal reference to “Jews.”
When someone pairs God’s name with “d–n,” another character scolds, “There’s no call for blasphemy.” Regarding her role in freeing the Asset, Zelda says, “We’re gonna burn in hell.”
We hear a reference to the Greek mythological figure Tantalus. Strickland says that the natives where the Asset was taken from worshipped him as a god. Later, we learn that the Asset has healing and restorative powers, which Strickland reasons is perhaps one of the reasons that it was venerated in South America.
A total of five scenes include partial or full-frontal female nudity and/or rear male nudity. Graphic sexual movements and visual allusions to masturbation are depicted as well.
Strickland menacingly suggests that he’d like to have intercourse with Elisa, crudely hinting that her inability to speak is a turn-on.
Giles clearly hits on a young waiter at the diner he frequents daily. When the young man finally realizes that Giles isn’t just being friendly, but that he’s trying to initiate a homosexual relationship, he’s repulsed, telling Giles, “Don’t come back here! This is a family restaurant!” Later, Giles wonders if he was too “butch” in the way he approached the young man.
We hear joking verbal references to a sex position and to masturbation.
As Elisa and Zelda are about to enter the containment room to clean it early on, Strickland emerges covered in blood, holding his hand. He’s clearly lost two fingers in a violent encounter with the Asset. After that, the creature is chained with a huge iron collar around his neck, enabling Strickland to shock it without the merman being able to strike back.
Elisa and Zelda are ordered to clean the bloody room after the contact between Strickland and the Asset. Elisa finds Strickland’s two severed fingers, puts them in her lunch bag and gives them back to him later. The fingers are surgically reattached, but slowly turn a rotting black as the story progresses (with one character commenting on their growing stench). Eventually, in a moment of rage, Strickland tears the dead digits off again, screaming and producing still more gore in the process.
Strickland is fond of an electrified nightstick he horrifically and repeatedly uses to torture the Asset. Later, he also uses it to get information out of a dying man, sticking it in the man’s bullet wound and shocking him. Strickland also grabs that man’s oozing innards and squeezes them.
Someone gets killed by a syringe full of poison. Strickland fires seven or eight rounds from a pistol at a van. Three men are shot. Strickland shoots someone else as well. A man hits another character in the face with a wooden post. Someone’s throat gets ripped out graphically and bloodily.
The Asset has a bit of a misunderstanding with one of Giles’ cats, Pandora, which leads to the feline being decapitated—much to his owner’s horror.
We hear about Samson having his “eyes burned out.”
About a dozen f- and s-words each. God’s name is misused at least 14 times, once paired with “d–n.” Jesus’ name gets abused once. We hear a couple exclamations of “Lord!” “D–n” and “h—” are both used three or four times each. We hear one use each of “b–tards,” “p-ss” and “p—y.” Elisa’s coworkers meanly lob names like “dummy” and “the mute” at her.
Various characters smoke cigarettes. Someone drinks vodka. Strickland repeatedly dumps prescription pain pills in his mouth.
As mentioned above, the actions of Elisa and her friends, while bighearted and generous, nevertheless remain illegal.
Someone makes a joke about “farts.” While cleaning the men’s restroom, Zelda complains to Elisa about men’s lack of accuracy and messes they make on the floor. As they’re discussing men’s bathroom habits, Strickland walks in and proceeds to use a urinal right in front of them. Both women are stunned by the man’s inappropriate behavior.
After being ordered to clean a bloody room, Zelda quips, “I can handle pee. I can handle poo. But blood? Blood just does something to me.” Zelda also says that she never lies—except to her husband. “It takes a lot of lies to keep a marriage going,” she opines. Brewster, we see, is lazy, unemployed and orders Zelda around shamelessly. When Zelda is confronted in their own home by Strickland, Brewster not only doesn’t defend his wife, he gives the government agent information that Zelda wouldn’t.
Strickland makes racist, sexist comments to Elisa and Zelda. A man operating a bakery refuses service to a black couple.
One important character turns out to be a foreign spy.
The Shape of Water is an odd, beautiful, jarring, graphically problematic kettle of fish. It samples cinematic DNA from movies as diverse as Creature From the Black Lagoon, Beauty and the Beast and E.T. the Extra-terrestrial, fusing them with a flesh-filled interspecies love affair.
Sally Hawkins’ portrayal of a mute, lonely, passionate janitor is already earning Best Actress Oscar buzz. And it’s not hard to see why: For much of the film, her facial expressions tell the story of a woman longing for love, intimacy and meaning in a world where she’s been all but forgotten.
So deep is that longing, of course, that she’s quick to enter into not just an emotional relationship with the aquatic amphibian alien she rescues, but a physical one as well. And at that point, the wonder-filled innocence that’s filled much of the movie falls away as quickly as her bathrobe does.
I think noted director Guillermo del Toro could have told this unconventional love story without including the graphic nudity the camera repeatedly gazes at, and without the clear implication of an interspecies sexual relationship.
But that is not the story he’s chosen to tell. What we have instead is a fairy tale that is at times sweetly sentimental, other times exceedingly explicit.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.