Decades of psychological research tell us that humans crave certainty and closure. Ambiguity, on the other hand, makes us deeply uncomfortable. It goes against our very nature, one that seeks to know things conclusively and to understand them and to feel safe in that knowledge and understanding.
That’s exactly why the inconclusive ending of The Shape of Water is so successful. It manages to turn ambiguity into a sense of closure; mystery into beauty.
The 2018 Oscars best picture field includes some wonderful endings: the final montage in Dunkirk, Lady Bird leaving a voicemail for her mother, Elio whimpering into the fireplace in Call Me By Your Name. The last moments of The Shape of Water may have been the best of them all for the way it marries three different interpretations into one conclusion, each as moving—and as valid—as the others.
Guillermo del Toro’s film follows a mute woman named Elisa who works in a government laboratory in Baltimore during the height of the Cold War. As an infant, Elisa was found on the side of a river with her throat slashed, which rendered her speechless and gave her three large scars along the side of her neck. She thus has trouble connecting with people; her only friends are her co-worker, Zelda, who doubles as her sign-language interpreter at the lab, and her neighbor, Giles, an artist.
When an amphibious humanoid creature with strange healing powers is brought into the lab, Elisa becomes first intrigued by it, then attached to it, then—this shouldn’t be a spoiler by now—in love with it. She, Zelda, Giles, and a scientist smuggle the creature out of the lab and into Elisa’s apartment, where she and it grow closer.
To make a long story short, Richard Strickland, an army colonel who’s responsible for the creature and is hellbent on killing it, tracks down its whereabouts, leading to a final confrontation between he, Elisa, Giles, and the creature on the banks of the canal where Elisa intends to finally set the creature free into his natural habitat. Strickland shoots Elisa—seemingly killing her—before the creature takes Elisa’s body into the water with it.
What happens next is entirely up for interpretation.
As Giles narrates the final scene, the creature “heals” Elisa, bringing her back to life, and turns her neck scars into gills so that the two of them can live together underwater, happily ever after. There are three competing theories as to what actually may have happened, and all of them are both beautiful and also thematically consistent with the film’s message—that, like water, love is fluid and can take many different shapes.
The creature literally gives Elisa gills
The most straightforward interpretation of the ending is that the creature heals Elisa’s injuries and literally turns her scars into gills so that she can breathe underwater. As ridiculous as such a notion is, it fits perfectly into the genre of magical realism—a staple of Latin American fiction and favorite of Mexican director Guillermo del Toro—that typically depicts a highly realistic setting in which one specific thing is magical or mysterious: In this case, an amphibian creature with healing abilities.
Elisa was a similar creature herself all along. The creature doesn’t heal her wounds, it restores her gills
One theory posits that Elisa, while perhaps not the same exact kind of creature as the creature, is still not entirely human. After all, she was found as a baby near a water source with her throat slashed. But what if her throat wasn’t slashed? What if they were actually gills? What if the doctors who operated on her didn’t sew the wounds shut, but they, in fact, unwittingly closed her gills. It would explain her inability to talk (the creature doesn’t talk either) and her immediate connection to the creature.
Elisa dies, and what we see (the creature giving her gills) is just a happier ending Giles imagines for them
Since the film is bookended by bits of narration from Giles, we can comfortably assume that the whole thing is him telling a story, either to someone else or simply remembering it for himself. (Del Toro has called The Shape of Water a “fairy tale” on numerous occasions.) The most non-magical explanation is that Elisa dies after being shot by Strickland, the creature takes her body with it into the water—but she never really comes back to life. Giles visualizes the creature giving her gills, and the two living happily ever after, but that’s not what literally occurs. (Okay, I lied earlier, this is probably a more poignant interpretation than the other two.)
The great magic trick of The Shape of Water is that, while what’s on screen is ambiguous, all three of these interpretations still give the story closure. You can choose to believe one of them or all three of them, it doesn’t really matter. The film proves that intentional ambiguity doesn’t necessarily mean a story ends unsettled. That the film doesn’t explicitly tell you which interpretation to have makes all of them more powerful.