Dir. Andres Muschietti; Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis
[3 out of 4 stars]
All is not well in Derry, Maine. Home to seven of Stephen King’s spine-tingling stories of the bucolic state turned deadly, it is better for all of us from Maine that Derry does not actually exist. King has made a career of unraveling our lives, only to weave them back together into unparalleled tapestries of terror. “It,” published in 1986, has already seen one adaptation, in the form of a 1990 mini-series which had Tim Curry take up the mantle of the eponymous clown. Coming twenty-seven years later, Andres Muschietti brings It (2017) to the big-screen to introduce a new generation of filmgoers to King’s manic clown.
The film opens on brothers Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott). It is a stormy day, and Bill lovingly assembles a paper boat for his brother. Muschietti follows each fold and crease, and it is a truly beautiful piece of filmmaking, and emblematic of much of his style. He lingers on small details, here and later when it comes to the scenes of horror, such as an exceptionally inventive bit where a painting comes to life to hunt one of the children. He shows off the lush production design that went into making Derry and its characters come to life. Muschietti, particularly in this opening sequence, charges his images with ideas of innocence and the subsequent loss of it. As Bill puts the finishing touches on the boat, called the “S.S. Georgie,” he sends his brother to the basement to fetch the wax so the boat will float. Standing at the top of the dark basement steps, Georgie utters a line which is as much for him as it is an ethos for the audience: “Be brave.”
After Georgie brings the wax and Bill completes the boat, it is out into the rain for the little boy. The camera follows him, in his bright yellow raincoat, and the boat down the street, until it is swept into the gutter, and we are brought to the film’s most controversial scene. Here, Georgie meets Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård), an introduction he does not survive. It is a brutal and deeply disturbing scene, but I believe it is necessary to understand the core function of the film. The beauty of the opening moments set up the profound connection between brothers, and so we are able to conceive of the story as Bill’s reckoning with the grief of losing Georgie, and the overarching loss of innocence that accompanies such a discovery. It is Bill who inspires his friends, known collectively as “the Losers Club,” to investigate what happened to Georgie, and therefore leads them towards Pennywise.
A story about childhood does not succeed without a talented cast of children, and “the Losers Club” is that and more. There is an immediate chemistry between Bill, Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Bev (Sophia Lillis), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer),Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), and Mike (Chosen Jacobs). Wolfhard is now well-known as Mike Wheeler on Netflix’s Stranger Things (2016-), and it is refreshing to see him play a more energetic and comedic character here. They are not all great performers, but as an ensemble they lift each other up, never losing the necessary energy.However, the standouts in the cast are Lillis and Taylor. Ben is the “new kid,” but it is through his historical research that a deeper understanding of Derry’s mythos and menace is reached. Taylor is a scene-stealer in ways both comical and dramatic, but it is really Lillis who stays with you. I hesitate to give away too much plot, but it is through her story that we fully understand a second vital aspect of the story: no matter what Pennywise conjures, reality can hold demons much more menacing, and it is only through the rag-tag band of “the Losers Club” that evils natural and demonic can be combatted. The screenplay slowly reveals more of the kids’ backgrounds, exploring and having the kids overcome those very fears which Pennywise exploits. A refrain by the “Losers” is “it’s not real.” They fight to recognize that fear is only in their minds, and if they can battle it they can vanquish it, be it demonic or human in nature.
Regardless, King’s story is nothing without its monster, and what Skarsgård brings to the performance of Pennywise is truly, deeply unsettling. When Tim Curry first brought the role to life in 1990, it was a rather campy affair. Watching it now, the terror is undercut by rather unintended humor. That is never a problem in this new production. Aided by a remarkable team of special effects technicians, the many forms and appearances of Pennywise permeate the film with a constant stream of dread. You never quite know when he’ll pop up, or how he’ll look when he does. Muschietti is not remarkably inventive with his jump scares, and fills his film with many of the tropes one would expect in a monster movie, but it is nevertheless terrifying. I challenge you to sit through Pennywise’s introduction without trying to shrink into your seat away from the creature.
As a horror movie, Muschietti has done nothing to reinvent the wheel. The jump scares, as noted, are all rather well-trod. They do their job, but unlike this year’s brilliant Get Out (2017), there is no freshness to them. But, fresh or not, watching a nightmarish creature appear from the darkness is effective. Even so, the film succeeds in telling a truly moving story of grief and redemption. From the start, Georgie is linked to the imagery of his bright yellow raincoat. He is wearing it when he is taken by Pennywise, and at each moment that “it” attempts to attack Bill, the imagery of Georgie and that raincoat factor in. When we reach the film’s climax in the heart of Pennywise’s lair, it is less the floating children that stick with you, but the image of Bill finding his brother’s torn raincoat. It was our entrance into this world, and it is the heart of the film’s urgency. There are unspeakable evils in Derry, but it is the undying love between brothers, and then friends, that give hope to the “Losers” and to us.