Guillermo del Toro’s new movie — The Shape of Water — is a high-minded movie that looks great, sounds good, but ultimately fails to consecrate the point of the story: Communication Creates Love.
There are all sorts of movie tropes packed into the The Shape of Water — but the center of the swirling is a “mute” janitor, played by Sally Hawkins, who falls in love with a sea monster because they are able to communicate using American Sign Language; and that major flaw in discovery, reason, and accessibility, will serve as the remainder of my argument why The Shape of Water, in the end, fails as a facilitation for a grander, romantic, connection of human/serpent longing.
The acting in the movie is generally grand — and while that is the object and mission of the actor, the director always gets the blame, or the credit, for a performance. Richard Jenkins is terrific in his supporting role as a remote neighbor of his “mute” neighbor.
Michael Shannon is one of my favorite actors — even though he reminds me of my father when I knew him 40 years ago — but in The Shape of Water he’s stuck in a role from which there is no kind escape. There’s no nuance in performance. He’s not just The Bad Guy, he carries the water for all the cruel sins of the world.
There’s nothing dramatically interesting about his character. He’s filled with anger, and revenge; and that traps an actor into an endless stream of grimacing and threatening. Yes, we get it — the real “Monster” in The Shape of Water is Michael Shannon — but it isn’t an interesting read on the base emotional impetus of the character to tear down the world like Hercules.
Octavia Spencer is fine in her role as co-janitor. She’s always good, if unsurprising, but there’s no glimmer from her in The Shape of Water. We know her characters roles, and we recognize this role as yet another a cog in the storytelling to push forward the story, if not uncomfortably, and mechanically. Again, that is not Octavia’s fault — she performs as written and directed — the concern for her rudimentary exemplar belongs to Guillermo del Toro.
Now we arrive at the most precocious role of the “mute” janitor played by Sally Hawkins. She plays the role well, but that doesn’t begin to convert the sins of the storytelling that have been unfairly waged against her in The Shape of Water.
For some reason, The Shape of Water, is being pushed in the Deaf Community as an “American Sign Language” movie, and I have no idea why — because if you are Deaf, or in the Deaf Community, or if you use American Sign Language as a method of communication, you would be at least frustrated by The Shape of Water or, even outraged, as to how ASL has been co-opted by Guillermo del Toro to serve his storytelling ends.
Using American Sign Language to help others with other disabilities, other than Deafness, is a vital and inspiring idea, if executed right, and Janna Sweenie and I even wrote a book about just that — American Sign Language Level 5: A Field Guide for Advanced Communication Techniques for People with Other Disabilities — but content and intention matter in the real world beyond the flickering screen, and execution and clarity are everything, and Guillermo del Toro usurps the mechanics of ASL to serve his purpose of storytelling, and that false acquisition, and employment, of American Sign Language as a tool in The Shape of Water, is both sorrowful and outrageous.
The people raving over Sally Hawkins’ performance in The Shape of Water are those who know nothing about disability or American Sign Language. Please be aware they’re praising a put-upon performance mandated by a director, not a cause célèbre, and while Sally Hawkins is a fine actress — but one who appears to have made a living playing disabled people — one wonders why Guillermo del Toro was too frightened to use a disabled actor in the role.
We who know, know that it is easier for the timid and the meek to communicate with a Hearing actor, rather than a Deaf one, or a differently disabled one — and that shame of inconsideration, and inconsistency of belief and faith — belongs squarely in Guillermo del Toro’s lap. There are many disabled actresses who would have brought a greatness, and an authentic intensity, to the role that Sally Hawkins could only act to imagine.
Guillermo del Toro needs a lesson in Audree Norton — a Deaf actress who stood up to Hollywood for the right for the disabled to play the disabled on screen — and who was then summarily punished by the industry by never being hired again:
The “mute” janitor role Sally Hawkins’ plays is also a sloppy kludge, but a convenient one for characterization stereotyping, in that since she’s “mute” and does not use her voice, she can, still, miraculously hear just fine — and that point of protocol is where the movie begins to dissolve within its own muck and mire of insolubility. So the “mute” is Hearing but does not voice, and she uses American Sign Language to communicate with those around her? How convenient! But also, how unreal, and unlikely.
If the “mute” janitor character truly decided to use ASL — instead of writing — to communicate with the Hearing world around her, she would be using PSE, Pidgin Signed English, and not American Sign Language. It makes no contextual sense that the “mute” janitor uses ASL — unless you’re a movie director searching for a cute hook that appears to add depth to an underwater story.
There are no other Deaf people in the movie, and everyone around the “mute” janitor — who miraculously are able to not only understand her ASL, but voice-interpret for her as well — speak English. The “mute” janitor would be signing a mixture of Home Signs and English — and that sort of language mashup of communication memes would be eminently more interesting than just having her sign ASL out-of-the-box of convenience of storytelling.
This failure of communication authenticity strikes at the heart of the story and, sure, it’s cute that the sea beast and the “mute” janitor fall in love using some borrowed ASL signs, but in its essence, corrupting American Sign Language is an emotional, and intellectual, cheat.
If, as a movie director, you are intent on pasting an ASL performance on a Hearing actress — go for it all the way! Don’t become meek and place yellow, open captions, on the screen to get a laugh, or to repeat, in text on the screen, what the other actor in the same scene with the “mute” actress just repeated in “translation.”
I realize Guillermo del Toro was likely pressed into using those open captions by the movie studio for “clarity” — but it would have been more daring, and realistic, to just go for it, sans captions, and allow the audience to understand, or not, along with the others in the movie.
As well, the yellow open captions are not always used when the “mute” janitor uses ASL, so there’s no logical continuity involved in what is important enough to caption and what is not — and if the ulterior motive is to get a “Fuck You” joke out of the audience, there are more thoughtful, and clever, ways to achieve that emotional cheat.
Even in the light of a rock-ribbed disappointment in the language of The Shape of Water’s storytelling, the real star of movie is Doug Jones as the sea monster. He’s poetic. He sings. He floats. He mesmerizes. He consecrates the meaning of the human condition — even when Guillermo del Toro makes him use “sign language” to express his love for the “mute” janitor.
The Shape of Water is, essentially, a silly Fairy Tale told mechanically by a director magician who asks you to look over here, while he reshapes the story over here; and while that may be the job, and duty, of some directors, Guillermo del Toro must know in his bones that the inauthenticity of the “mute” janitor in his movie creates more pity than empathy, and more loathing than terror. The Shape of Water also has multiple, gratuitous, female nude scenes that do not add to the story and, in fact, those scenes remove one from capturing a more universal understanding of the charms of human/beast love.