The Shape of Water seems prophetically appropriate for our era.
While watching the film, I couldn’t help but see the main antagonist, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), in the context of the Parkland school shooting of February 14th. Truth be told, I’ve been binging my way through New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Politico articles since it happened, hoping that this time something, anything, might be done to bring down the 38,000 gun deaths our nation suffered last year.
Through my research, I learned a fair bit about the psychological profile of a mass shooter. And, Shannon played that part perfectly. Strickland drags the Asset/creature (he is an unnamed amphibian man) from his native habitat in the Amazon to a Baltimore government facility in this early-60s horror-romance film. The creature is a lab rat. The government hopes that what they learn from him can get them to win the Space Race before the Soviets. The mute heroine, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), teaches the creature how to communicate through sign language and falls in love with him. The creature, unlike the rest of the world, does not view her in the context of what she lacks.
Strickland wants to vivisect the creature more to take the creature apart than to learn anything. Quite frankly, he scares me. He’s a character I would naturally expect to find in the 60s: he’s a man devoted to the era’s concept of masculinity and, thus, must be strong, tough, successful, and in control. He must dominate. This results in predictably sadistic behavior. At one point, he tells Elisa, a janitor, that the thought of her muteness “gets [him] going.” Elisa quickly flees the room. He tortures the creature to the point of unconsciousness in reprisal for it biting off two of his fingers. Viewers are also privy to a disturbing sex scene between Strickland and his wife.
But, when the creature is rescued by Elisa from the government lab before he could be vivisected, Strickland’s freewheeling dynamic changes. Strickland assures his superior, General Hoyt (Nick Searcy), that he’ll recover the Asset; as time goes by Hoyt gets less patient with him. This culminates in a small shooting spree the day Elisa had determined to release the creature to the sea. Strickland dies when the creature fights back after being shot.
In the course of the plot, the film shows us a rather accurate portrayal of a mass shooter. They are not always stereotypical loners, nor do they always have a record of illness. Further, the mentally ill are more likely to be targets of violence than perpetrators. But, what is consistent between life and the film’s portrayal is that mass shooters are a phenomenon affecting men of every age, race, and economic status. Though some perpetrators do suffer from depression, that is certainly not the case for all. The lack of determining factors for this behavior is why a well-to-do, apolitical man can snipe down random Vegas concertgoers without a single person understanding why.
There’s a reason why males are three times more likely to be the victims of homicide. There’s a reason 90% of homicides in the US are perpetrated by males. There’s a reason that 94% of mass shooters are male. Is it a mental health issue? Yes, but it’s also a problem involving how we structure gender in this country, as Shannon’s character attests. The sheer availability of dangerous firearms is also problematic.
If Strickland had the slightest bit of self-awareness, he would understand that admitting you are weak sometimes is not weak. It’s honest.
I sense a sea-change in the making, and I’m determined to prove myself right. With the #MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’s March, and now the Never Again movement with thousands of students across the US organizing walkouts, it seems my generation is ready and eager to battle social ills that have festered for decades. Bound up in this hope are two powerful lines from The Shape of Water, when Elisa tries to convince her best friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins), to help her save the creature from Strickland’s sadism:
Giles: It’s not even human.
Elisa: If we do nothing, neither are we.