Warning: This story contains spoilers for both Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
If you had asked me yesterday who I thought was going to win Best Picture at the Oscars, I would have said hands down Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
The film — a dark comedy about a mother who, after months of waiting for the police to find her daughter's rapist and murderer, puts up three billboards shaming their inaction — hits all the right notes for an Academy struggling to to address the onslaught of #MeToo stories flooding the movie industry.
Today, with the nominations for the 90th Academy Awards in hand, I'm not so sure. And you know what, I'm pleasantly surprised.
Three Billboards holds seven nominations, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor — a double nomination for Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson. But The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro's horror fairytale about a mute office cleaner who falls in love with a water god, is leading the pack with 13 nominations (almost double Three Billboard's), including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Picture.
Despite Shape of Water's high nomination count, the fact that both films are represented in some of the most race-defining categories means that we might see some real competition for Best Picture. But if it were up to me, Shape of Water would win, hands down.
On the surface, these two movies have almost nothing in common. One has Frances McDormand storming around in a jumpsuit, throwing molotov cocktails at a police station. The other has fish sex and Russian spies. (And did I say fish sex? Because seriously, this woman fucks a fish! And it's romantic!) But delve a little deeper, and you'll find that the two actually address very similar themes of otherness, sexism, and race, all of which Shape of Water handles infinitely better than Three Billboards.
The Shape of Water is a gorgeous two-hour allegory. The fish man isn't really a fish man. He's a stand-in for everyone we, as a society, exclude as a curiosity rather than a living, breathing, emoting being. But what's so great about the film is that it doesn't stop there. It weaves in other marginalised groups throughout the film, giving them depth and personhood: the fact that we see Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who is mute, masturbating in the first few minutes of the film, as part of her daily routine on equal footing with boiling an egg, marks her as a sexual being. It's jarring because we're not used to considering disabled people — and especially disabled women — in that light.
And rather than letting us bask in the glory days of 1950s Baltimore diners, the film jolts us out of nostalgia by revealing the open racism of those days. The fact that Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is so willing to put her job, and indeed her life, on the line to help rescue an endangered creature is even more impressive when you think that she is also living her life as a second-class citizen. Even Michael Stuhlbarg's scientist/spy is marginalised by his desire to put knowledge and curiosity above patriotism — he's a nerd. All of this ties together nicely when you consider that the villain is a white, middle-class bully.
Race is a key element in Three Billboards as well — at first. We learn early on in the film that Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a racist cop with a penchant for torturing Black offenders. But what could have been an opportunity for real social commentary gets rolled up in the series of other issues the film tries to tackle unsuccessfully. Rather than fleshing out its "others," Three Billboards uses them as props for a laugh. Peter Dinklage's character, for example, appears to only be around so we can laugh at the idea of a dwarf dating a no-makeup Frances McDormand. (Dinklage was born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism that affects bone growth.)
And that's not to say comedy can't be used as a tool to examine our own biases — just look at Get Out. But the problem with Three Billboards is that it doesn't really go beyond the broad strokes. It's superficially woke. And yes, it has Frances McDormand avenging the cause of women everywhere. But even that loses its punch when you consider the film's running joke about a 19-year-old sleeping with a violent man in his 50s.
Wesley Morris nailed this in his review of the film for the New York Times. "It’s one of those movies that really do think they’re saying something profound about human nature and injustice," he wrote.
Upon first viewing, I was struck by how prescient and relevant the film felt given the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and the introspection that followed regarding the systemic power imbalances in Hollywood. But the more I think about it, the more I feel it's just a safe option: a movie about racism and misogyny directed by a white man.
We, like Elisa, can do better. Why settle for bad men when we can have fish sex?