Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard
Directed by: Andy Muschietti (Mama)
Written by: Chase Palmer (debut), Cary Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre”) and Gary Dauberman (“Annabelle: Creation”)
Everyone will go into Andy Muschietti’s “It” with vastly different expectations. Some will be hoping for a solid adaptation of Stephen King’s book, while others may have no knowledge whatsoever of King’s property. There are miles of expectations existing between those two platitudes. I’ve read Stephen King’s lengthy novel; it’s not my favorite of his, but it’s impossible to deny how singular of a work it is. However, this is not the review to read if you’re looking for an examination of faithfulness to the source or comparisons to the 1990 miniseries that isn’t as good as you remember. Those critiques can be found elsewhere on the internet, and many of them are very much worth your time. Warner Bros and New Line seem to be at least partially aware of audiences’ multi-faceted relationship to Pennywise and the Losers Club, as they have put out a movie that is clearly meant to appeal to the masses, with the final product revealing itself to be somewhat of a mixed bag.
Don’t get me wrong. I am beyond giddy that this movie exists. I’ll be happy to see it make money and am wildly intrigued to see the direction in which the inevitable sequel takes its characters. From this movie’s opening moments, Andy Muschietti crafts a vision that is uncompromisingly violent, twisted and bloody. He introduces us to a group of young friends that are genuinely likable and then fucks them up, one by one, repeatedly for nearly two-and-a-half hours. There’s something genuinely scary about children in peril, and recent films like “Annabelle: Creation” have employed this notion effectively, but no mainstream movie in recent memory has been as unrelentingly brutal as “It.”
That violence is an essential theme to the movie, and it never feels excessive or exploitative. Childhood is messy and bloody. Yes, we see how the film’s villainous otherworldly clown harms children, but the script from Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman doesn’t stop there. There is real world violence present in King’s fictional town of Derry, Maine. Child-on-child violence appears in the forms of knife-wielding bullies and concussive rock fights. Abuse from adults rears its heads in both physical and psychological ways. Not even the animals are safe.
At its core, “It” is a coming-of-age tale where a band of misfits overcome their real-world fears while simultaneously destroying a monster that feeds off said fears. It’s a fantastic idea ripe with potential. Muschietti does an exceptional job setting the stage to explore it. His images are striking and individual moments are uniquely scary despite a familiar formula. The cinematography from Chung-hoon Chung (Chan-wook Park’s longtime collaborator) is a hypnotically stunning and eerie. Additionally, Benjamin Wallfisch’s deceptively simple score does a lot of heavy lifting. In fact, all the behind-the-camera elements, by any genre’s standards, are of the highest caliber. This is a great looking, astonishingly directed move. But strip Muschietti’s film of its glossy elements and there’s little left to chew on, especially when the film commits to its by-the-numbers third act.
To be fair, there’s plenty of compelling stuff here. It nails the complicated state of childhood, and the best moments involve the kids hanging out with each other. Jaeden Lieberher is great as Bill, the leader of the gang going through agonizing grief after losing his younger brother. Sophia Lillis gives a star-making performance as Beverly, easily the highlight of the film until she’s reduced to a catatonic rallying device for the final act. I enjoyed all of the kids, their awkward interactions and sophomoric sense of humor. And they’re definitely smarter than what the script has them go through for the end. That ending, by the way, is something lifted straight out of an early “A Nightmare on Elm Street” movie. It’s a storytelling decision that is familiar and doesn’t take any risks. For all its alluring sheer, well-crafted scares and bold choices, “It” ultimately regresses back to its mainstream roots, and the film suffers from that decision.