PLOT During the Cold War, a cleaning woman at a top-secret facility discovers a strange creature.
CAST Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins
RATED R (sexuality and violence)
PLAYING AT Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Square 13, Manhattan. Opens locally Dec. 15.
BOTTOM LINE A role-reversal monster movie with gorgeous visuals from Guillermo del Toro and a knockout performance from Hawkins.
If you saw “Creature From the Black Lagoon” as a kid, you might have had a nagging question: What did the Gill Man want with the girl? You had a general idea, even if you couldn’t picture the nitty-gritty of it. Ultimately, it didn’t matter, because monster movies are often not about the monster or the girl. They’re about virtue, and about the brave men who guard it by rescuing the maiden from the Gill Man, King Kong, Dracula or, for that matter, the wolf hiding in Grandma’s bed.
Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” turns all of that on its head. It’s a classic monster movie reworked for a new age, a role-reversal romance rather than a rape-revenge metaphor, a fairy tale rather than a cautionary tale. It has a princess and it has a frog. And this time, we get into the nitty-gritty.
“The Shape of Water” stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute cleaning woman at a military-industrial facility. The year is 1962 or so, and every scientific discovery is an arms race with the Russians. One such discovery, a humanoid sea creature, is brought to the facility by ex-Army man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Scientist Bob Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to study it; Strickland would rather torture and kill it.
In the meantime, Elisa takes a shine to the creature, billed as Amphibian Man and played with muscular grace by Doug Jones (a longtime del Toro collaborator). At first they are lion and tamer — she gains his trust with hard-boiled eggs and Benny Goodman tunes — but soon they become intimate. This interspecies romance may raise some eyebrows, especially when the biology is explained to us quite clearly, but we’re willing to buy it thanks to Hawkins, whose silent smiles and sly eyes speak louder than words. Del Toro also punctuates this courtship with humor in the form of a dreamy, 1940s-style dance number — she in a classic ballgown, he in only the gills God gave him.
“The Shape of Water” couldn’t have been released during the era in which it’s set. For starters, del Toro devotes a fair amount of time to Elisa’s gay neighbor, Giles (a lovely Richard Jenkins). Even more important is the intensity Shannon brings to Strickland, an ultra-conformist bent on eradicating anything outside his norm. Back at the Black Lagoon, he would have been the virtuous hero. Today, he looks more like the monster.