There is one character in Guillermo Del Toro’s sumptuous new movie, The Shape of Water, who relishes, above all, the game of instilling terror in those around him. No, I’m not talking about the extraordinary, potentially god-like merman featured in the movie’s posters, though he does cause people to shriek from fear in the movie. I’m referring to Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the new director of the ‘60s-era facility in which the merman is being held for study. The bad, bad boss man.
While watching Strickland harass the facility’s maid staff and intimidate his employees, the same two lines reverberated in my head: “I came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then." Those are the opening sentences Harvey Weinstein wrote in his statement to the New York Times, published soon after the first allegations about his decades of sexual misconduct broke. Want a picture of the culture Weinstein refers to? Watch The Shape of Water. Meet Richard Strickland.
The Shape of Water, set in a mysterious government lab in Baltimore, conjures up a very specific '60s sensibility. Everything about this facility is fashioned from the model of Cold War Era Chic: A dull green color scheme, large metal doors that groan when opened, scientists scurrying in lab coats and officials sauntering confidently in suits. Without asking any questions, the maids clean up the trail of blood the men (literally) leave behind.
While NASA is busy sending men to the moon, the particular facility in The Shape of Water is discovering the secrets embedded in a merman’s organ system. Both organizations are united in the very '60s mission of propelling the human race into the future. So, who cares if some powerful men are forceful in steering humanity’s way to progress, right? In Strickland's mind, such extreme and domineering behavior seems almost requisite, considering his lofty goals.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins), the movie's protagonist, quickly comes in contact with Stickland's thirst for dominance. The first time Elisa meets her new boss, she’s cleaning the men’s room with her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Strickland walks in, and tells the maids not to worry about leaving. He lays down his beating rod in the sink and then, much to the maids’ horror, starts to pee into the urinal. He turns towards them and continues to pee, spilling himself onto the freshly-cleaned floor.
Strickland’s behavior grows more gruesome as the movie continues. In addition to establishing dominance, he also starts to act on his appetites, because, when the system clearly won’t punish him, why not? The sexual undertones that had existed in his initial encounter with Elisa only grow more pronounced — and more dire, since Elisa is mute. She has no voice with which she can speak up against Strickland, even if she wanted to.
The scariest moment in the film occurs when Elisa is trapped with Strickland in his office. He locks the door. At any moment, he could have forced himself on her. After reading the headlines of the past few months, it’s obvious that this tense scene has been recreated in different iterations in many real women's lives.
If The Shape of Water existed in the real world, I cringe at the thought of what would happen when a sociopathic boss developed a crush on a mute maid. Luckily, The Shape of Water is a Guillermo del Toro movie, which means the underdog and empathy will always have victory over the domineering forces. Elisa can’t speak, but she can act. She signs, “Fuck you,” to him. She gets back at him in ways you'll have to see the movie to understand.
Del Toro’s movie is many things. It’s a story of friendship between outcasts, of the triumph of love over practicality. And it’s also a very simple story of a woman struggling with workplace harassment. If the merman is representative of the possibilities existing beyond society’s strictures (who would think the Amazon River harbored a fish-man?), Strickland is a representative of his specific time and place. He is a product of the hierarchy that existed in the ‘60s, when a person in a position of power knew no consequences — the same environment Harvey Weinstein says he was reared in.
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