Andy Muschietti’s It is a gorgeous ode to all things fearful, finding its footing in strong performances, exceptional cinematography, and atmospheric depth. Derry is a messed up place, and maybe Pennywise is the least of its problems. Spoilers to follow.
Alright, maybe that’s a stretch to say — I mean the character ‘It’ is the embodiment of fear, but only children can see him. That so much is clear from this first chapter of a two-part epic based off of Stephen King’s gargantuan novel. ‘It’ is more than Pennywise, he manifests into creatures and objects and other people as long as it plays into a child’s nightmares. Without the presence of the adult portion of the narrative, Muschietti’s job became amplifying those deeply entrenched horrors, but also keeping them within the realm of mystical and unbelievable.
It doesn’t even have to be ‘unbelievable’ because ‘Pennywise isn’t a real clown/thing.’ Many don’t like believing that parents can be horrible, but they, in fact, have the capacity to be awful, abusive and outright shitty. The Losers’ Club deals with monstrous adults of all kinds — some infinitely worse than others — but it certainly creates an environment of isolation for our protagonists. If the adults in Derry don’t even feel a responsibility to their children, it’s no wonder ‘It’ has such a hold over the town.
Chung Chung-hoon’s impeccable cinematography peeks around corners, turns onto side streets, and projects audiences from a bird’s eye perspective over Derry and its inhabitants. We see the kids fend for themselves but they also share moments of intimacy, animosity, and camaraderie. Each falls into a stereotype that many 80s-based films like to tap into, but break through all assigned cliches and make us care for them.
It wouldn’t have been possible with a weaker cast of child actors. Standout performers include Sophia Lillis, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard and Jack Dylan Grazer. Lieberher had a massive job on his hands carrying the 135-minute movie, but he balances feelings of guilt and fear effectively. He’s good on his own and interacting with the other kids, particularly Jackson Robert, who plays his little brother. Lillis is the most naturalistic with her dialogue, playing Beverly Marsh with such empathy and earnestness. Wolfhard and Grazer are a pair and a half, with their best scenes set alongside one another, playing into their humorous dynamic.
Overall, all the kids delivered performances imploring audiences to care. Some of them don’t get as much screentime as others — which is a shame — but the fact that the film still tries with its periphery characters shows its commitment to the heart of the story.
Then we get to Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise, and what an actor he is. I’m convinced that all Skarsgårds are unfairly talented, and Bill is no different. His ability to act through the practical effects and the makeup — to somehow humanise and distance himself as Pennywise and create both a fun and terrifying character — is laudable, to say the least. He also does exceptional voice work in the film, attuning to ‘It’s different personifications with a little tweak in his tone.
What I found lacking in the 1990 miniseries was definitely not replicated in the film version, and for that I’m grateful. Stories like It demand a more concerted effort to deal with characters sensitively, within habitats that feel both nostalgic and unfamiliar. That’s the joy of King’s work and that spirit is thankfully found in Muschietti’s film. Its strengths lie in its decision to take time and ground horror in accessible things, especially when ‘It’s origins are not fleshed out in the film at all.
As a result, the children’s bravery becomes more palpable, important and necessary — not just for themselves but for the audience of adults (this being a rated-R movie). I don’t like the notion that adults can’t empathise with a child’s fears unless it manifests in something gruesome and upsetting, but there are those out there who just don’t feel scared or threatened by a killer clown or creepy surroundings.
As a story, “It” isn’t typically scary in a Hollywood way — you know, with excessive jump scares and stupid decisions (mostly done by grown-ups) — nor should it have to be. So as a film, It crescendos until a final showdown that is deeply satisfying. Even then, those familiar with the book or miniseries know the horror isn’t over. Personally, that’s the kind of approach to sequel making I can actually get behind. Muschietti and his cast and crew have proven their mettle in handling a story as intricate and formative as “It” and there needs to be a Chapter Two.