To some critics, this fantasy in which a disabled abused woman heroically challenges the male power structure is perfectly timed for the #MeToo movement. Actually, I think it is far more ambitious than that. The film seems to predict the actual reversal of the power structure in the future because men are no longer able, or willing, to accept the role model that society imposes on them. While some may think that I’m reading too much into what is a simple entertainment movie, I have to disagree. Director and co-writer (with Vanessa Taylor) Guillermo del Toro makes some original and bold declarations about what constitutes “good” and “evil” in the modern world, and it would be dishonest to pretend he doesn’t want us to take him seriously.
It is 1962 in Baltimore. We first meet Elisa, a mute – but not deaf – young woman, played by Sally Hawkins, as she prepares to leave for work in the morning. She is a janitor at a space exploration laboratory, but she dresses in a simple yet stylishly feminine manner. She prepares hard boiled eggs for her lunch, and also for her neighbor, Giles, a lonely and aging commercial artist, played by Richard Jenkins. Giles is a lover of old movies, and it is fitting that he and Elisa live over a movie theater.
Her best friend, Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer, holds a spot for her to punch in, as Elisa is often late. As with Giles, Elisa “talks” to her in sign language, but they are her only social contacts. The director of the agency, Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, is a driven, sour-tempered sort, but they don’t usually see him very often. But on this day, something unusual happens: an “asset” is delivered to the lab. It is a fish-like creature that Strickland found and captured in the Amazon jungle. With webbed-hands and scales, but legs and torso like a male human’s, it is unlike anything previously seen in the world. Now it will be studied for a possible rocket-launch into space. A Soviet spy posing as a scientist in the lab, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is also closely observing the creature. But Elisa is fascinated by it, and also repelled by how cruelly it is being treated by Strickland. In secret moments, she feeds the creature and treats it with tenderness, leading to a relationship of mutual affection and, even, a kind of sexual attraction. Then, after Strickland decides that more can be learned by killing, and dissecting it than in keeping it alive, Elisa forces the somewhat reluctant Giles and, eventually, Zelda, to help her rescue it.
Out of this set-up, del Toro has fashioned an exciting pulp thriller with romantic overtones. Its pop-chant is “Save the Creature”: let it return to the Amazon! In doing this, the “good guys” are also thwarting the “fascist-racist-male-dominated power structure” that, at least in 1962, exploited the country’s fear of Soviet domination during the Cold War. Del Toro also had an anti-fascist theme in “Pan’s Labyrinth”, but is using a much broader perspective when condemning American-style fascism.
At least that’s the take del Toro would like us to have. But if you have problems with that – as I do – that doesn’t mean you won’t have a good time at the film. His characters are complex and imperfect. The “good guys” make human choices, sometimes flawed ones, but del Toro fashions credible opportunities for them to triumph against great odds. With almost no violence until the final few minutes, the action is made propulsive by unusually forceful performances, well-crafted and sometimes witty dialogue and crisp editing.
Is it likely to be a popular success, then? Well, as skillfully made as it is, we’re given a little too much to chew on for easy digestion. Defeating the “bad guy” is essential, of course, but there’s a risk in how you characterize his evil. “Casablanca”, for instance, kept it classically simple. Creepy as he was, Conrad Veidt was only a plain old Nazi, and his death didn’t shorten the war by much. But poor Michael Shannon! His character is meant to symbolize every narcissistic and destructive impulse that America has tortured the world with since the white man’s arrival, and he’s damned proud of it! Strickland’s nasty barbs against those he supervises – especially the disabled and the “lower” races – give him as much pleasure as the electric cattle prod he uses on the chained creature. And, of course, he finds Elisa’s disability, muteness, to be a sexual turn-on, as she discovers to her horror. To complete the picture, his “perfect” wife and two grade school sons seem as “factory-made” as the new Cadillac he buys when the salesman, seeing his weakness, calls him the “man of the future”.
As with “Pan’s Labyrinth”, this view of men in power is simply cartoonish and tendentious, and detracts from any serious analysis of history. Wisely, however, del Toro doesn’t care. You either accept that view of America’s role in the world or you don’t, so he avoids specific historical references that would only add clutter. Still, del Toro does have a serious theme here, and, by implication, he expects the audience to connect the dots in their own minds. It is an interesting, if arguable, premise that, with the unrestrained pollution of the earth’s atmosphere today, the white male power structure is more of a threat to the world than ever before in history. Unlike the world in 1962, today’s audiences are fully aware that unrestrained greed, racism and male sexual domination are built into that power structure, and there is no reason to think men will loosen their grip just because worldwide disaster is approaching.
Interestingly, del Toro seems to assign more blame for this to being male than to being white. Consequently, only the women, Elisa and, belatedly, Zelda, seem to have the courage and unselfishness to save humanity now. The men who are in power, like Strickland and General Hoyt, are diseased fanatics. But the good but powerless male characters are simply hopeless. Giles is weak, self-pitying. The only non-white male character, Bruce, who is Zelda’s husband, simply melts at Strickland’s threats. While Dimitri, the Soviet spy, does die heroically, he is also a relic of false patriotism. It may well be that the only hope for the human species rests with strong women like Elisa, a true superhero.
And this is where del Toro makes his boldest move. One female superhero may not be enough. Humanity’s best chance to save itself may be, he says, to propagate the species without men altogether. So he imagines another species, previously undiscovered, to become the “rescuer” of our own. He carefully omits anything in the film that gives us any other hope. After all, with a fascist for a father, we can’t expect Strickland’s two sons, when adults, to do anything but continue our self-destruction. And none of the “good” men in the story seem willing to raise a child. That is why the water-logged sex scene between Elisa and the creature is so significant, down to suggesting, by animation, that something like a cross-species fertilization has occurred. Del Toro brilliantly maintains a lightness of tone here. Elisa and Zelda just have some naughty girl-talk about it afterwards, and Giles confesses his envy to the creature because it has enjoyed something he’d always wanted, “you lucky guy”. But we, the viewers, are not meant to see it as just a sex romp. There’s no doubt about it: del Toro wants us to believe that it just may change the course of history.
I confess to deriving pleasure from noticing, and explicating, underlying themes in films that most viewers don’t need to enjoy them. I’m an incurable multi-leveler, I guess. While I think I’m on sure footing on del Toro’s mytho-political subtext, you may not. But, on the level of pure entertainment, there should be no disagreement that del Toro made the right choices, especially in his cast. Octavia Spencer seems the current go-to gal for the wise, cynical working black woman, and Zelda fits into that meme comfortably. Trouble is, Spencer is so good at it, we tend to overlook her. She had the difficult job of letting the audience know what Elisa was saying in ESL, and it added buoyancy and humor to a story that carried some heavy-handed symbolism. Richard Jenkins – for too long an unnoticed treasure – may finally get some Oscar recognition as Giles, a lovable oddball. You’re going to remember how he wishfully places the creature’s webbed hand on his bald head to stimulate hair growth.
But Sally Hawkins is beyond praise as Elisa, effortlessly expressing an inner strength despite her affliction. Deeply romantic, her recognition of human, as well as masculine, qualities in what others would consider a jungle beast is thoroughly convincing. As mentioned before, however, Michael Shannon is artistically crippled by a role conceived more as a ghoulish symbol than a credible character.
Which leaves us, finally, with del Toro’s biggest challenge: the creature itself. The actor, Doug Jones, in collaboration with the costume designer, gave us a tripartite combination of amphibian, humanoid male and comic book oddity. Unfortunately, the oddity part is what stays with us. Whether clothed or otherwise, Hawkins shows a genuine depth of feeling in her scenes of bonding with the creature, who, understandably, flips over her (no pun intended). Still, the subtitled dialogue of their courtship had a few unintended double-entendres. I confess that, more than once, my imagination substituted the perfect stand-in for the creature, Deadpool, who dropped some sarcastic and well-deserved howlers into the romance.
The film’s climax, however, is flat-out thriller entertainment, and shows how skillfully del Toro constructed his story to satisfy on that level. Still, I think it would be wrong not to give del Toro credit for smoothly integrating his political subtext within a genre film. He believes that the existing power structure today is incurably diseased. It is not “the dark side” of a far away galaxy. It is not a clown-faced gangster terrorizing a city. It is not even the America of the Cold War of fifty years ago. He presents what he sincerely believes is America’s perpetual villainy, that it is more dominant than ever, and that American culture has so educated and brainwashed American men that they will never challenge it, and don’t even know they are infected. His film is a fable, a fantasy about how women, as yet uninfected, can effectively challenge that power structure. And, by using the popular art form of superhero fiction, he imagines a new species of human that will be needed to finish the job.