THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE SHAPE OF WATER.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
“What makes a man a ‘man’ , a friend once wondered. Is it his origins, the way he comes to life?
I don’t think so. Its the choices he makes; not how he starts things but how he decides to end things.”
This question, and the notion of 20th-century masculinity, has long been a theme in Guillermo Del Toro’s films, be it in subtext or front-and-centre. In his worlds, the real ogres wear very familiar forms. Usually handsome (or at least, rugged), with a penchant for sartotial style over inner substance. More often than not, they can be found in a position of authority or “respect”, which they wield with impunity and brutality. They are hard men with no appreciation for beauty or compassion, products of their environment or merely the latest recipients of an ongoing cycle of abuse. This essence, this spirit of toxic masculinity, takes many names and many faces. It’s in the impeccably groomed sadism of PAN’S LABYRINTH ‘s Captain Vidal. CRONOS’ thuggish Angel De La Guardia. The sullen Jacinto of THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE. And in THE SHAPE OF WATER, in Michael Shannon’s sharp-dressed company man, Richard Strickland.
As Occam Aerospace’s Chief of Security, Strickland is the man of the hour, the hero of his own story. Having captured the film’s amphibious Amazonian “Asset”, Strickland carries himself with the air of a decorated war hero: rigid, shoulders back, his tall frame restrained in a tailor-made suit that keeps him tight and streamlined. His life at home is Rockwellian perfection, his family of the prototypically nuclear variety. He has a doting and beautiful wife, a daughter & son and a home-cooked meal waiting for him when he walks in the door. Cold War-era suburban perfection. And none of it seems to make him happy.
Sex with his wife is a passionless chore – as he laboriously makes love to his wife, he puts his hand over her mouth, silently whispering for quiet. His relationship with his children rings hollow, with a detached half-interest in what his children tell him about their day. When his family’s unyielding chatter and the loud volume of the constantly blaring TV become too much, he escapes to his car in the driveway and sits. The only sound, the patter of raindrops against glass and Detroit steel. This is a man out of sorts with the perfect life he’s created for himself.
At work, though, Strickland has power. His office, highest point in the building, where he can see all from his desk. The augmented courage he feels with his sleeves rolled up and the slick-black cattle prod clenched in his fist. Here, he feels strong. Here, he feels complete. And he has no hesitation in exerting his influence among the others at Occam. Whether it’s belittling “the help” with racist or sexual innuendo, or mocking the project’s chief researcher for his more humane concerns for The Asset (“ Scientists…they are like artists: They fall in love with their playthings.“), Strickland feels more himself away from the confines of domestic life, where his brutish nature and lack of empathy prevent him from forming a meaningful relationship with his family. He has purpose, and that purpose is serving “the greater good” – in his case, the military-industrial complex who sees his violent nature as boon, not bane. Both Del Toro & actor Michael Shannon have hinted that Strickland’s character notes detail a less-than-ideal realtionship with his father, most likely abusive in nature (and considering his thematic predecessors, it’s easy enough to connect-the-dots here). It’s in his relationship with The Asset that we see his true nature: a natural tendency towards domination, the superior being to this “affront” to nature and God’s will (“You may think that thing looks human- stands on two legs, but we’re created in the Lord’s image. And you don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?“). In a later scene at a car dealerhsip, the salesman tells Strickland, “You are the man of the future.” It’s a line, a sales pitch, but in Richard’s mind, it’s just simple truth, isn’t it? He is Homo Americanus, the alpha male, by birthright and by dint of his gender , his species and the colour of his skin.
It’s only fitting that he would seek a similar figure of authority as his surrogate father. A man like General Hoyt: the most basic (and laziest) definition of masculine power, Hoyt views emotion and compassion as weaknesses, defining his identity with the brass on his chest and the symbolic weight of his title. The modern ideal of American “manifest destiny”, Hoyt is a fellow “man of action” that someone like Strickland can easily identify with, and willingly emulate.
When The Asset is stolen, Strickland’s grasp on control begins to slip. We see it manifest in his temper, we see it in the rot of his hand, the reattached fingers from his altercation with the amphibious humanoid becoming gangrenous and black, the physical manifestation of his own disintegration. It’s all on him, and he’s feeling the pressure. Enough so, that in a rare instant of humility and honesty, Strickland confides, with Hoyt, his feelings on their dynamic and the weight of it all. The result is one of the film’s strongest moments, and perhaps the only time he elicits any sympathy from the audience .
You’ve know me for how long?… and in all that time, I… This is…what happened here is…A man is faithful, Sir: loyal, efficient all of his life. All of it, and he is useful. And he expects, he has certain expectations in return. And he fails, then. Once. Only once. What does that make him? Does that make him a failure?
When is a man done? Proving himself, Sir? A good man. A decent man.
And in return for opening up, for baring his soul?
A man has the decency not to fuck up- that’s one thing. That is real decent of him. The other kind of decency? It doesn’t really matter. We sell it, sure but it’s an export. And we sell it ‘cause we don’t use it.
See? Thirty six hours from now this entire episode will be over. And so will you…
Our universe will have a hole in it with your outline. And you will have gone on to an alternate universe. A universe of shit. You will be lost to civilization. You will be unborn. Unmade. Undone.
So, go get some real decency, son. And unfuck this mess.
Years of dedication, brutality and servitude, all dismissed with the most casual of airs, by the man he respected the most. A mistake on his part , a moment of weakness, one that he knows he’ll never make again. Strickland doubles down on the “man of action” stance, descending further into rage and violence. He gives himself a pep talk in the bathroom mirror to psych himself up, reminding himself that above all else, he delivers. But even as he performs this act of willful affirmation, though, he’s coming undone. Emotionally and physically, the tight grip of order he has worked so hard to maintain all these years is coming unraveled. There’s a rot taking place, manifested outwardly by his hand, betraying the real sickness that has infected his soul.
At his core, he is a lost little boy, one of Del Toro’s “princes without a kingdom” : a man with no positive male guidance in their lives, suffering from either abuse or neglect and filling the emotional breaks and gaps with hardness and cruelty. A defense against the world that’s seen fit to break them at an early age. As a child, they were not given everything they needed to feel loved, protected. As an adult, they become the very force that shapes them, the rotten apple falling far too close to the diseased tree. Somewhere along the way, Richard Strickland was broken and robbed of any potential for kindness or sympathy before he even had a chance. But sooner or later, a man chooses whether he will break the cycle or continue to perpetuate it. And it’s that choice that marks the line between sympathy and revulsion. Strickland’s choice, like Vidal and Jacinto before him, ends up determining his fate. and unlike our star (and species) crossed lovers, it’s not a happily ever after.Any sympathy for his sad childhood gets eliminated by his willful cruelty as an adult. Like the other “lost princes”, Stickland dies at The Asset’s hands, right after his final moment of revelation (“Fuck me, you ARE a god!”), finding himself in the presence of a higher power at the very end. Richard Strickland suffers the fate of most tyrannical men. He finds no great reward or tribute for his actions. Only death, bleeding out in the fall rain. His life ends just as he chose to live it: violently, and alone.
Leaving a hole, with his outline, in the universe.