The Shape of a Villain

The Shape of water is an engrossing film with an unusual storyline. The film takes place at period of time in the USA when differences of race, gender and sexuality were volatile. The running theme is “othering” of blacks, women, homosexuals and so-called foreigners.

I have to admit the first time I watched the movie I abruptly fell asleep, woke up in the middle of it and was terrified at the scene I saw- an amphibian species that looked part human and part fish was being tortured by a tall white man- after seeing this I switched it off and vowed never to buy into the Oscar buzz again.

Two years later I’ve watched it not once but twice not because of its beautiful score and colour but because of the villain. Strickland is a tall, military man with a square jaw who is placed in charge of the “asset” i.e. the fishman brought in from South America. The fishman, we learn, is treated as a god by the inhabitants of the Amazon forest where an American oil company exposed his existence, the inhabitants tried to protect fishman but they only had bow and arrows, and so of course bullets won.

Strickland comes across as cold, evil and apathetic as a man could be. I understand that he is a villain and the objective is for the audience to clearly know that he’s the bad guy but even so the construction of a villain or antagonist, if you will, requires some sympathy, something that makes the audience understand the villain’s actions. For example, in Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, Kingpin messes with the timelines because he wants to recover his family and so his ruthless actions are understood but of course not condoned. My first watch of The Shape of Water left me frustrated because I love villains and it was difficult to sympathise with Strickland, I refused to believe that he was unlovable and so watched it again.

Villains are driven by the misconception that they are heroes in the story and they are oblivious to the core of what causes them to behave the way do. The introduction of Strickland makes it stark that he’s the villain: in a lab full of white coats he enters, walking behind the asset, dressed in black, an electrical baton in his hand and immediately requests security. Strickland is fearful of the asset, in fact he is fearful of anything that does not represent him- this is evident when he interviews Octavia Spencer’s character and claims God would look more like him than her. His fearful of foreigners and as a military man working in a high security science lab, he fears the Russians.

When we are taken to his home, we learn that he’s always on the move, the wife remarks that she likes the neighbourhood but he doesn’t because he others its community members; boxes are piled up in the corner of their bedroom as they have loveless sex. Strickland is used to taking orders and being shuffled everywhere just like the fishman he despises and tortures. His wife and two children love him but his adoration is to General Hoyt because he yearns to have the same powers, he yearns to be feared and to belong. He is driven like a well-trained police dog but his misogyny clouds his judgement, dismissing the possibility of the two women (one mute and the other black) as possible role players in the event of the missing fishman. He buys are car he did not like at first because he was told by the salesman that it is a signifier of prominence and a future thinking man. Strickland buys it because he likes to believe that everything he does is for the future of America and his positioning.

The direction of the movie tries to dupe the audience into believing that they are two villains. Hoffstetler is sent in by Russian Intelligence to spy on the lab, at first it seems like him as a Trojan horse will beat Strickland but when ordered to kill the fishman he blatantly does not follow the instructions because he is truly sympathetic for the fishman. When he discovers that the mute woman has been engaging the fishman and forming a bond with him he keeps her secret without even alerting her.

Anyway, Strickland figures out that Hoffstetler is a spy and shoots him in the mouth and mercilessly drags him across the ground through his wound like a fish caught on a hook.  Strickland squeezes out the information from Hoffstetler before he dies and rushes to the docks where he shoots the fishman twice and the woman. He feels accomplished, resolute that he has completed his mission- he has killed the Russian spy and the fishman- surely, he will be rewarded by his country. The fishman who has healing powers rises from his short death and slices Strickland’s throat, his last words declared that the fishman is a god even as he tries to reload his gun. Strickland, like many villains likes to give clever speeches, but with his larynx slashed he drowns in his own blood and finally feels the pain of what it is like to not be heard just like the mute woman he had made fun of.   He is no more lovable than he was in his first introductory scene but I felt sympathy for him- too bad he did not feel any for others around him.

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