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Having a strong sense of catharsis, or rather, what's cathartic in context to an emotionally strenuous situation, is an important quality all of us can benefit from. How we rescue ourselves from emotional turmoil, and how we laugh or escape from strong emotions, can define us individually. In Andrés Muschietti's newest adaptation of Stephen King's most famous clown Pennywise, IT, resides a masterclass in using catharsis as an emotional bond to high-art filmmaking. In this review, I'll be doing a couple of things specifically: I won't talk about the original miniseries, I will be using spoilers for the entire article below this paragraph (though not going into explicit plot or story detail), and this will focus heavily on the psychology and emotional aptitude of Andrés Muschietti's newest rendition of Stephen King's IT, the story of Pennywise and The Loser's Club of Derry, Maine.
The idea of tying horror, frenetic imagery, and dire situations together, then balancing them all out through catharsis, I can imagine, must be quite a challenge. The director, the actors, the editor, the composer, the producer, the lighting manager, the cinematographer, etc., all play a huge role in how a film is sectioned off, how it's edited, how it plays back to its audience. Let me first start by saying, I seem to be supremely conscious of each time I've used the word "it" in this article already, and let's all raise a glass to being just slightly distracting to call your monster "It". You've got a big pair of 'em, Mr. King. You knew you were so good at storytelling that you could give your monster a verb surname.
Pennywise is a scary mother fucker. At every moment, he's watching, lurking, tiptoeing through scenes, even when he's not actually there. There's a strong sense of dread that runs through my body when I see him on the screen, and every scene without him practically begs for his appearance. That says a great deal for the monster itself as an identity within the film. The way the character is written into the narrative is quite strong. He has an omniscient presence that grabs you by the shoulders and knees you in the groin while licking your forehead; that is, to say, Pennywise is both hilarious when he's fully fanged, and terrifying when he's peering through a gutter. He's got "it". (did that on purpose)
Bill Skarsgård absolutely IS Pennywise the clown, from the second he breaths "Hiya, Georgie...", to the moment his head disintegrates (warned ya 'bout those spoilers, so abandon all hope, ye who enter here), the actor falls completely into the role. My first impression of his Pennywise is lasting. When I walked out of the theater, I felt like Skarsgård had achieved his physical-actor's magnum opus in that every movement he has on-screen (outside of the extensive CG making his actions even more distorted) is terrifying and completely believable for an ethereal, multi-dimensional-alien-fear-monster-disguised-as-a-clown. Despite the specificity of his role, Bill nails it every time he's on the screen. His gate, mannerisms, and posture are all impressively scary, and the actor never slips out of character.
With that said, I wouldn't say he does any "heavy lifting" in terms of emotive, expressive acting. There's not a lot for Bill Skarsgård to do with his lines or his character except dance, dangle, drool, and contort. This is a physical actor's dream role, one that I could see Doug Jones absolutely excelling in if the timeline were different and he got the job. What I'm saying is if IT was a movie about a boat capsizing, Bill Skarsgård is the hurricane-addled sea that's tossing the ship about. He's not the captain trying to rescue everyone while hiding that his boat's loaded with Colombian cocaine he has to smuggle in order to save his dying wife. There's not a lot for Bill to do in this movie emotionally. And, that's okay. He's the living (albeit transcendental) manifestation of fear. He doesn't need to rescue himself from the fearlessness of children through a cathartic dick joke or uncomfortable flirtation.
That's where the children come in. Doesn't this movie kind of feel like Stranger Things, Stand By Me, and The Goonies, sometimes The Sandlot? The real acting work, the "heavy lifting" is done by the all-star teenage cast, who have so much personality, such distinct mannerisms and in-narrative lifestyles, such situational struggles, you feel like you know the young homeschooled boy living with his grandpa on a farm, or the young kid who's afraid of every sneeze, goo, and gunk because he was raised in a home with a mother who suffers from Munchhausen's by Proxy. These kids feel like they're really living their lives, like they're really haunted by the curse of a town monster, yet totally willful enough to set out to destroy it. The young adult cast is a major home run. I mean, these kids are believably potty-mouthed, reminding me of much of the swearing that takes place in The Sandlot, and they wear the shame of their elders. If there was one young actor of the six who wasn't a strong actor, the narrative would suffer. To their work ethic, I tip my hat. To their skills, I raise a glass of orange juice.
Let's remove the fact that IT costars Finn Wolfhard, who is also the lead character in Stranger Things, and talk about the dizzying 80's nostalgia wheel that's churning about professional filmmaking right now. In the city I live in, a new web series with a nearly identical title to Stranger Things has been shooting. As you might suspect, the series is basically a send up, of sorts, to Stranger Things. I've a big problem with this in the notion that Stranger Things is really an amalgamation of all the classic films I listed above, an homage of sorts to the bewildering weirdness of the 1980's American cinema, or the coming-of-age, buddy adventure-comedy of The Sandlot. IT feels like Stranger Things. I described to my mom that IT was like "a long episode of Stranger Things", and I feel that description is apt. Here's where the idea of an ouroboros comes into play.
Because Stranger Things is a literal send-up to all things 1980's Stephen King movies, and because it was a well-written nostalgia trip that garnered instantaneous acclaim, it is wont to be emulated. Yet, we have here in IT a very well-written send up to the 1980's and more in line with the book in which the screenplay is based. It's not that IT reminds me of Stranger Things, it's that IT reminds me of Stranger Things reminds me of Pet Sematary reminds me of Salem's Lot reminds me of Stranger Things reminds me of Muschietti's IT reminds me of 1980's slasher flicks reminds me of, oh, you get it. The idea that IT bites Stranger Things is laughable and a valid argument, as long as you acknowledge that Stranger Things is an homage of everything that comprised 1980's Stephen King and American slow-burn horror. You see what's happening? I'm talking in circles. I did it aloud right after I watched the movie, and I fell into a spiral of confusion and bewilderment. IT's brilliant like that.
Here's something cool I noticed that was utilized in IT to scare and confuse psychologically: some of the children share each other's facial features, and those that do share facial features with Pennywise himself. Bill Skarsgård has high cheekbones and a pointed chin, kind of a larger forehead but not overly five-heady, bigger than normal eyes and smooth skin. While Pennywise's face paint is perpetually cracked, (can I get an amen for some solid alliteration?) the rest of his defining features are accentuated. Of the cast, lead characters Bill and Beverly both share in having large eyes, high cheekbones, and pointed chins. Of the villain cast, you have characters Patrick, Henry, and Gretta who all raise some type of hell on the Loser's Club, and have distinctively similar facial structures to Bill Skarsgård.
This was not by accident. Remember that feeling I talked about above where I felt like Pennywise was in nearly every scene, despite not physically being there all the time? Well, it's because of the similarities in these actors features that creates a psychological understanding. What's the main conceit of this entire movie? Who are we supposed to believe embodies evil incarnate? Who is the focus of the entire film? Pennywise, the clown meant to feel like he's a God-level character who sees, knows, and smells all of us, everywhere we are. If he can't be on-screen ALL THE TIME, use actors who look like him. That way, audiences can never get rid of the effigy of his disturbing facial composition.
There are several scenes in Nicholas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives where none of the on-screen characters blink. Before we continue with this thought, Bill Skarsgård has a lazy eye, and this is played up through CG eye-rolls and generally offsetting Pennywise's eyes further from plum. It's cinema 101: fuck with the eyes if you're looking to unnerve your audience... In the embedded video below, a fight scene from Only God Forgives, not a single character blinks on-screen for the entirety of the nearly six-minute clip. While this is an old Italian filmmaking technique, it is nonetheless jarring, if not a bit disabling. Subconsciously, you expect people to blink. When people take forever to blink, it's kind of weird. When they never blink, it's uncomfortable as hell. This is a different technique by using similarly built actors, but it is psychologically parallel. This, my friends, is the most fucking brilliant part of IT, to me. I loves that shit.
In conclusion, I did have some issue with the daft parentage of the children, and the adults being completely useless through the entire film. But, here's the thing: that's a film trope from guess where? All things Stephen King 1980's film adaptations... and Stranger Things, pretty much any movie you've ever seen where the kids are the overachievers and the parents are dumbasses. The most famous film like this? Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I'm gonna let this pass, only because of the psychological tampering they did with the face thing.
Furthermore, give the fat kid some play, for once!
You'll float, too...