On leaving childhood behind, personal and universal fears, and It's unique outlook on coming of age
It New Line Cinema
Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenplay: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman, based on the novel by Stephen King
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Wyatt Oleff, Nicholas Hamilton, Stephen Bogaert and Bill Skarsgård
Rated R / 2 hours, 15 minutes / 2.39:1
September 8, 2017
(out of four)
The question is so often implicit: "What scares you?" And for the Stephen King adaptation It, the question is built into the entire conceit - with those very ingrained fears, the very answers to that question, giving its supernatural menace all its power.
But in this case it's not so much a matter of what, but when. What scares the boys and girl of Derry, Maine in the fall of 1988 has everything to do with the exact moment of their lives in which Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) has decided to turn his dancing eyes on them. Were he (or, to be more apropos, it) to have come along a year or two earlier or a year or two later - hell, maybe just a few months - this all would have been different. Adolescence only ends once.
Not that the timing is any coincidence. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about It as a coming-of-age story - and this is true of King's novel but lends itself nicely to a visual medium - is the way it amalgamates the twilight of youth, the latent fear of which encompasses every other fear that haunts these characters. That the manifestation of those fears is one and the same shapeshifting abstraction moves it out of the realm of the purely supernatural and into a nightmare allegory about the terrors of growing up. Pennywise is King's big, bold, symbolic stand-in, at once a universalized horror and a deeply personal - more than that, private - one. It takes all the things that so commonly define coming-of-age stories of American pop culture - straightforward, sentimental, nostalgia-inflected, with life lessons aplenty to be learned, usually the hard way - and finds an indelible way to represent all the intangible, unspeakable, inarticulable things about them.
Director Andy Muschietti - in his follow-up to 2013's underrated Mama, taking over this long-in-the-works adaptation after Cary Fukunaga departed - nimbly accentuates the relationship between the characters' actual, real-world torments and the clown that has come along to co-opt them. Muschietti keeps a careful subjectivity to the way he links the two as he introduces each of these kids to Pennywise one by one. Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) - the new kid in town, who's become obsessed with its dark and secret history - is in the library when a red balloon floats across the room, leading down to the seemingly abandoned shelves of the underlit lower floor. Pennywise is waiting, less a physical presence and more a sort of projection, which happens to have found a brief, hidden sanctuary in which it can gets its claws into Ben's mind. Thanks to the timely appearance of the librarian, he escapes unscathed; but as he exits the building into the mid-day sun, the camera pulls back to reveal one of Ben's actual tormentors, a school bully on his school-bully bike, lying in wait behind a tree.
The pattern is more or less always the same, even if the specifics are different. Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is walking down an alley in broad daylight when a traumatic memory - one directly wrapped up with his own fearful resistance to growing up - inexplicably manifests itself, like a PTSD flashback. Charred hands emerge through the cracks of a chained-up door as the conflated screams of human and animal drown out his senses. From somewhere inside, Pennywise laughs. What punctures the spell is a group of those same bullies - every member of what will come to be known as the Losers' Club is seemingly in their sights, with the River Phoenix-like Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) as their ringleader - careening through the alleyway in a car, nearly running Mike over and laughing their equally sinister laugh as they do it.
In the most memorable demonstration of It's psychological arrangement, we see Bev (Sophia Lillis) in the local pharmacy as she gets set, presumably for the first time, to buy tampons (while, of course, trying not to be spotted doing so by any of the other girls from school). Muschietti pays this off with his most impressive sequence - which, in the sheer volume of blood it involves, draws instant parallels to an iconic sequence from fellow King adaptation The Shining. Locking herself in her bathroom - one of the few ways she can avoid the advances and attention of her sexually abusive father - she hears something, voices, in a sort of hollow echo. She peers into the sink; the camera descends down the drain. And then it grabs her - gnarled hair rises from the drain and gets her in its grasp, winding and wrapping tightly around her like the roots from The Evil Dead. All of this is just prologue - the drain has other ideas in mind, unleashing a deluge of blood, splashing on every corner of the walls, the ceiling, the windows, the floor, knocking Bev across the now-flooded room, the film's entire frame covered in giallo red.
Given the film's (and Pennywise's, in particular) tendency to overexplain the way it operates (the clown mentions more than once that he's exploiting, becoming, the children's fears, as if that weren't already clear), I was worried that the scene was going to conclude with a character - most likely Bev's father - making an overt reference to the menstrual symbolism. Instead, it goes in a smarter direction, using the aftermath of this scene to establish just how alone Bev and the Losers' Club are in this world. She mentions the blood to her dad (Stephen Bogaert). "What blood?"
For this group - Bev, Mike, Ben, Bill, Richie, Eddie - what happens to any one of them has a lasting, physical impact for all of them. For everyone under this collective spell, they're susceptible to it all. To Bev's father, the bathroom is pristine; to the kids, it's so real that they take an entire afternoon to clean it all up, a bonding experience that no one else even has the capacity to see or understand. It also speaks to the father's denial of her fledgling womanhood, and underlines just how powerful the separation is between adolescence and adulthood - just how fine the line.
As for Pennywise himself, Muschietti is consistently resourceful in the way he uses him - as both a physical presence and an imagined one, as both a performance by an actor and a special-effects illusion. The clown - with its heightened, devilish appearance, shocks of ginger hair curling hornlike to either side, the red paint of his grin extending in a straight line up his cheeks, past his eyes, like proudly worn scars - seems to appear wherever he can, wherever he fits. At times he appears unfathomably large - most notably in the film's best, and most shocking, moment - and at others he seems deceptively small. A crouched figure in tall grass. He changes size and places himself wherever he can fit. Wherever there's room for fear - weakness, vulnerability - he will fill that space.
This movie is a unique instance of noticeable special effects being used with real utility - not in terms of the technical accomplishment, but in the way it plays with Pennywise as an idea rather than a personage, or a monster. He changes appearance, size, form, species - all of which emphasizes how un-real he actually is, a fact nicely contrasted by the very real effect he, their fears incarnate, has on these characters. And all the lost, abducted children before them. Playing into that effect is the performance itself. Reportedly Hugo Weaving was in contention for the role - and in an amazing what-if, Tilda Swinton was an early target - before the role went to the then-26-year-old Skarsgård. While both of those veterans are great, I think the youthfulness of Skarsgård's performance is a perfect fit given the circumstances - namely how he's able to authentically imitate (and taunt) their youthful sensibilities. It's an exuberant, athletic, childish performance - juxtaposed against a great cast of kid actors. Although it's an ensemble film, Bill (Midnight Special's Jaeden Lieberher) is the de-facto male lead; it's his little brother who is abducted early on, in the famous boat/sewer scene, essentially setting the tone for the whole town, which has been enevloped in fear and danger ever since, one child disappearance after another. Lieberher's terrific work is matched by Lillis, Jacobs, Taylor, Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard (the funniest character in the movie) and Jack Dylan Grazer as the anxiety-riddled germaphobe Eddie.
It's rare for a film to be able to pull off requiring so much of an adolescent cast, but It somehow does it. Pennywise aside, no grown-up characters have more than two or three speaking scenes; it's all on these kids. Which is only fitting. No matter how much guidance we get at that age, growing up is, to a significant degree, a go-it-alone business. What gives them the strength to face off against Pennywise - specifically by choice, multiple times - is the mere realization that they've already been facing him every day. At school, at home, and everywhere in between. A scary clown's got nothing on the mere prospect of leaving childhood behind.