Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 3 min.
Our content ratings (1-10):Violence 5; Language 4; Sex 3/Nudity
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.
Song of Solomon 8:6-7
The oppressed shall speedily be released;
they shall not die and go down to the Pit,
nor shall they lack bread.
Isaiah 51: 14
Romantics ought to love this genre-combining film directed by the creative Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Set mainly in a Baltimore government research facility in 1962 when the Cold War was at its dangerous peak, the filmmaker combines fantasy, Cold War spy adventure, romance, cultural satire, and even the classic Hollywood musical in a blend that enchants and thrills. It is also an outsider’s tale, one in which the oppressed rise up and snatch love and liberty from those who have been grinding them down. And what a vile villain to hiss at, a maskless Darth Vader or a Snoke in a business suit!
The central character is Elisa Esposito, a mute woman brilliantly played by Sally Hawkins, an orphan whose throat scars are the visible sign of the abuse which cost her her voice long ago. She works the night shift as a cleaning lady at the Occam Aerospace Research Center where her superior, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), treats her like a piece of his lab equipment. She has two friends, co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an artist working on an ad painting touting the virtues of Jello. Elisa’s and Giles’ apartments are in the building housing a once lavish movie palace, but which now attracts just a few patrons who enjoy old Biblical, historical films, and musical films.
It is the Giles’ voice whom we first hear in the narration, setting us up for the fantastical by
mentioning the story of a princess, the one she loved, and the monster that threatened to tear them apart. He enjoys taking Elisa to a local diner where he is attracted as much to the young male clerk as he is to its sweet pies. When we see him dealing with the manager of the ad agency, we suspect that it was his gayness that prompted his dismissal from the regular staff and present very tentative status as a contract artist—his boss will not meet him at the office to look over his work, but out of doors instead.
Elisa is working the night when Strickland brings in a large vessel containing what he calls a “valuable asset.” Sometime later she and Zelda are cleaning the Men’s Room and then the hallway when they hear a scream, and Strickland rushes from the lab, bleeding from the loss of two fingers. Mopping up the blood in the room, she discovers the missing fingers and sends them to the hospital along with her boss. Learning that the “Asset” is an amphibious humanoid creature captured in the Amazon, she immediately becomes interested in it. Once she sees that it (Doug Jones) enjoys her favorite snack, hard boiled eggs, she becomes obsessed with its welfare, sneaking into the room where it is kept in a pod joined to a large pool and bringing her portable record player to play jazz and romantic music while teaching it her sign language.
It pains her to see the cruel way in which Strickland treats the creature during his experiments using an electric cattle prod. His calling it his “Alabama how-de-do” reflects the newscasts we see on occasion of cops using firehoses and cattle prods on “Negroes” Civil Rights demonstrators. (The filmmakers even work in a scene in which Giles’ romantic gesture is rejected in the diner followed by the clerk’s refusal to serve a black couple who have just come in.) From a home sequence, shot in the color scheme of the glossy ads of the times, we see that Strickland leads a double life in the suburbs, kind (though paternalistic) toward his adoring wife and children, but unfeeling, no cruel, at work. He would have made a good Nazi.
There is one other important character to introduce, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a marine biologist who winces at Strickland’s ill treatment of their asset. He has a deep, dark secret—he is a Soviet agent sent to spy on the experiment. He has told his two handlers that it is intelligent, so they have charged him to sabotage it. They give him poison to kill the creature, lest the Americans learn more from it to enhance their space program.
By now Elisa has fallen in love with the creature. At one point the mute signs to her friend, “When he looks at me, he doesn’t know I am incomplete. He sees me as I am.” Pushed by Strickland’s cruel treatment, she decides she cannot stand by and watch her lover die from his abuse. Zelda, Giles, and even Hoffstetler, the latter undergoing a change of heart, team up with her to sneak the creature out of the facility and hide him in her bathtub. (The spy says, “I don’t want an intricate, beautiful thing destroyed!” indicating that unlike Strickland, he has a conscience.) There follows a love scene between Elisa and the creature and a somewhat funny sequence when the bathtub water overflows, leaking down into the movie theater below. There are also some brutal, bloody encounters, and even a song and dance that could have come out of La La Land or old Hollywood musical in which Elisa sings “You’ll Never Know How Much I Love You.” Oh yes, we do, and by the surrealistic ending that will cheer every romantic hart in the audience, we know that so does Guillermo del Toro. He loves these four oppressed outsiders—mute Elisa, black Zelda, gay Giles, and the captive Asset—and therefore will not let them go down in defeat.
The film definitely is not for children, but will be a delight for young adults to discuss. However, the brief female nude shots and the lyrical sex scene of the lovers probably will be a problem for religious groups. For a tale of the oppressed going free, this film cannot be beat. The filmmaker might seem a long way from Amos or Isaiah, but for me Guillermo del Toro belongs in the company of socially conscious directors whom I call “prophets with a camera.”
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the January 2018 issue of Visual Parables.