Have you seen The Shape of Water, that marvelously innovative film with atmosphere that just won’t quit? Mostly I loved it. So lush and creative!
The film has been lauded as a modern fairy tale about embracing the “other”—with characters who are all outsiders (monster, mute woman, gay man, African American woman) banding together in the name of love.
But: I was disappointed in the ending.
Spoiler alert. I’m going to reveal the ending.
Here’s my thinking: The monster/amphibian man/Amazonian river god could have emerged as a true hero if the last five minutes of the film had gone differently. Sure, the Hollywood ending works—he slashes the throat of the man who shot him and his beloved. He exacts revenge for torture and imprisonment as well as the final insult of murder. He gets the girl and even brings her back to life in a dreamy underwater scene.
Satisfying, on one level.
But I was rooting for something really innovative. The god-man’s foil is the heartless Colonel, who throughout the film jabs the “asset” with a cattle prod. Faced with the “other,” this white man persists in cynically disbelieving that he might have anything to learn.
Throughout the film I watched the villain suffer both emotionally and physically—while the river god-man turned out to have bona fide healing powers. And I thought that maybe, just this once, Hollywood might surprise me.
Maybe it didn’t have to be all “kill the bad guy” this time. Maybe the river-god would turn out to be a true healer. He could turn to the man who had made his life hell, recognize his suffering, and show him something different, reveal a whole new worldview.
The transformative power of love—real love, not just the limited “I-need-you-you’re-mine” romantic variety—would surely alter the Colonel. The fingers the river-god had bitten off could be regrown. Healing and forgiveness would pack even more punch than a vengeful, justifiable slash to the throat.
It sounds sappy, maybe, or wispy. But compassion doesn’t equate weakness in my mind. And it doesn’t have to be exercised without muscle. Say the villain, fingers restored, still lashes out in violence instead of bowing down to the greater power of love. The river-god could contain him, without hurting him physically, understanding that his suffering is of a different sort. The kind that takes longer to heal.
I’m aware that it’s largely my privileged and coddled life that allows me to think this way: Never having confronted true evil, I am free to look for the sliver of light I believe everyone possesses. To watch for the wounds beneath the villainy. To consider the villain as more than just the sum total of evil acts.
I am free to call for transformation, never having been on the receiving end of violence.
But there are people who’ve been there. People like Immaculee Ilibagiza, who survived genocide in Rwanda and brings a message of forgiveness now.
Or Phan Thi Kim Phuc, Vietnam’s “napalm girl” who, years later, embraced the man who ordered the bombing of her village.
Their courageous example tells me that this impulse toward healing over vengeance is possible, and that I’m not wrong in seeking it. And maybe it isn’t only about effecting change in a “villain”—change that may or may not happen. Maybe it’s about the transformation arising in the one who holds compassion.
It’s just a movie, you might say (back to Shape of Water). Let the ending stand unquestioned. It’s what we’ve come to expect. After all, the same theme turns up in countless novels, song cycles, video games, operas, paintings, on and on. It’s the theme that’s driven Western society for eons: that we overcome by force and domination.
But the cultural myth we live by is shifting, and needs to shift, and it’s time for our cultural expressions to reflect that. Who better but the artists to explore and embody a new Story of Reunion, as Charles Eisenstein puts it?
Note: For more on the transformative power of compassion, check out the Forgiveness Project, a powerful collection of stories from all over the world.