They push and pull like a fish-man and a mute woman do… Okay, putting aside the shameless Ed Sheeran pun, this movie is a work of art, but strange. Very strange. I didn’t expect the showing I attended to be full of older couples, and I was somewhat worried about whether or not they knew what they were in for. Judging by the gasps and nervous laughter, I’m not sure all of them were prepared for this sort of surreal tumble into Guillermo del Toro’s brain. But it takes falling down the rabbit hole to get to this weird and wet Wonderland.
It’s a struggle to figure out where to even begin with this movie. The visuals alone are stunning. It’s set in 1961 and pays homage to many aspects of Cold War Americana: the housewife in the orange apron, advertisements for green Jell-O, teal Cadillacs, movie theatres upholstered in red velour, vaguely menacing Russians. In many ways the design of this film is reminiscent of Amélie, only instead of warm reds and yellows and greens oozing sunlight over Monmartre, this film casts itself in deep red and teal blue, like blood floating through seawater like smoke from a flame. It doesn’t feel real, not in the slightest, but it’s not trying to; it’s like watching an immaculately staged play on a massive, yet wholly contained, set. The artifice is the goal.
Yet despite its obvious and intentional performativity, the actual cast performances feel real. Sally Hawkings as Eliza Esposito is the star, especially since she communicates entirely through her body—she’s mute, her vocal cords slashed as a child, leaving her with scars obviously reminiscent of gill slits on each side of her neck. With only sign and body language, she’s able to indicate everything from terror and desperation to wonder and love through the cadence and frenetic pace of her signing and her deeply expressive eyes. Octavia Spencer as Eliza’s friend and coworker Zelda offers a deeply appreciated voice of reason to the absurd adventure, especially when paired with Richard Jenkins as Giles, Eliza’s adoptive father and sometimes too-quick supporter in her quest to save the fish man, dubbed “the Asset.” As the Asset, Doug Jones is surprisingly emotive for someone encased in three hours worth of latex prosthetics; the film’s strength comes through especially in wordless scenes of connection between him (it?) and Eliza. Even Michael Shannon’s antagonist Strickland is well-acted, though somewhat ham-fisted at times—he’s so aggressive, a frothing-at-the-mouth portrait of repressed Cold War masculinity, that his role is comparatively one-note.
This is maybe the film’s only, and extremely mild, weakness: for all its ambitious avant-garde intentions, the plot is actually relatively thin. Strickland wants to use the Asset to prove his merit to the army and the government. Eliza wants to rescue him, especially after she forges a connection to him after hours and in clandestine meetings while she cleans the ambiguous scientific institution at which she and Zelda work. But a deadline approaches. Strickland think the best way to examine the Asset is in death—specifically, a vivisection, a word used almost certainly for the gruesome, visceral feeling it evokes. So she hatches a daring, and shockingly amateur, rescue. There’s a subplot involving a helpful scientist who turns out to be a secret Soviet, possibly a defector, but it’s really rather unclear. What matters is Eliza and the Asset against the cartoonishly evil Strickland.
Still, this isn’t really a movie about Cold War politics or evil scientists. It’s a movie about love, and longing, and when the two come together. Eliza and the Asset forge a bond that feels incredibly genuine given their circumstances. She feeds him eggs and teaches him sign language, like a researcher would tame a wild gorilla. But she also dances with him, their hands resting on opposite sides of his glass tank. She touches him gently, like another person, instead of the rough handling of the scientists, showing him that he is not to be feared; a clever and deliberate contrast is made between Strickland’s angry, dispassionate sex scene with his wife and the careful way Eliza first strokes the Asset’s body, like a work of art. Even a small subplot underscores this emphasis on human connection: Giles is a closeted gay man attracted to a local waiter, too scared to make a move for fear of backlash, and when he does, he is rebuffed as a monster, an outcast. Eliza, herself an outsider, finds connection in another species.
It’s weird, yes. The film handles their intimacy delicately, showing them embracing and kissing, hinting at sexual relations with a change in Eliza’s mood and a clever use of sign language to answer the question on every viewer’s mind: how can these two even have sex, given their anatomical differences? Which is really a good representation of the entire film. It’s strange, and at times uncomfortably frank, and not shy about its intentions. But it’s also warm, and loving, and somehow wonderful. We see in this film what Eliza sees in the Asset—an ugly sort of beauty. So, Guillermo del Toro, I thank you. For giving us this cartoonish-yet-honest movie that could only come from your surrealist mind, a story about a quiet woman meeting an Eldritch god, and somehow making it work.