Thursday, September 21, 2017
IT (Andy Muschietti, 2017)
In October 1988 Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) goes out in the rain to play with the paper boat his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) makes for him, but he never comes back, having been attacked by the sewer-dwelling Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård). In IT Georgie’s tragic disappearance is curiously unexceptional. In Derry, Maine missing kids are like a seasonal crop. The next summer Bill remains persistent in his search for Georgie. The hunt he leads will bring him and his bullied friends, including jokester Richie (Finn Wolfhard) and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the lone girl among this circle of self-identified losers, closer to whatever evil emerges every twenty-seven years.
Screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman don’t attempt to adapt all 1100+ pages of Stephen King’s source novel for this version of IT, yet the film still feels like it’s racing to cram in as much plot as possible in 135 minutes. It’s breathlessly paced, which is a positive quality in a monstrously sized page-turner and a detriment when trying to build suspense and instill horror in a movie. Films create more tension through the anticipation of something will jumping out of the shadows. Alfred Hitchcock explained that suspense comes from letting the audience know something will happen and stretching out the moments until that event, such as knowing when a time bomb will go off. Having that bomb explode unexpectedly in a scene is merely surprise, providing a jolt for a few seconds rather than the suspense of several minutes. Instead of massaging scenes for the inherent terror in skulking around dark places, IT exhibits a tendency to cut right to that fleeting payoff when the evil thing reveals itself.
While IT feels unsatisfactory as a scary movie, it is more perceptive regarding the nature of fear. What frightens people is individualized, making the evil in Derry so horrific because it looks different according to the observer. Whether one is unnerved by clowns or not, Skarsgård’s friendly manner laced with menace and Pennywise’s extra-long, front teeth, suggesting a predatory, animal-like quality, makes this particular manifestation of a sinister, supernatural entity so disturbing. The double bind of a welcoming figure who exudes a sense of malevolence stirs up unease that can be easier to intuit than explain. The way Skarsgård overenunciates his t’s, like a sledgehammer smiting a spike, puts one on edge.
IT director Andy Muschietti excels at capturing how kids act with one another and coaxes terrific performances from his young cast. Depictions of teenage life on film often veer toward idealized reminiscences or sensational portraits of trauma. IT recognizes that the casual cruelty and extraordinary kindness teenagers are capable of are points on a spectrum, and the simplicity of moving along that line is what can make this particular stage intimidating and exciting. The group of kids is clever but not in a precocious way. Their wisdom is still limited by their ages. Unlike the caricature of a character he was saddled with in THE BOOK OF HENRY, Lieberher portrays Bill with the vulnerability and fortitude believable for a teen wrestling with tragedy. Lillis impresses in playing Beverly as someone whose experiences have made her wise beyond her years and aware of her power. As horror, IT can be lacking, but as teen drama it can be quite effective.