Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 28 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 8; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
For the evil have no future; the lamp of the wicked will go out.
Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?
And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one.
A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
I have not read Steven King’s 1986 novel, nor have I seen the TV miniseries aired in the 90s, so viewing director Andy Muschietti’s film was a fresh experience for me. It was truly a creepy experience, sort of a blending of Stand By Me with a typical shocker, such as an episode from Nightmare on Elm Street. Muschietti does a wonderful job of bringing out the best from his ensemble cast of young actors, who make up the outsider kids who call themselves “The Losers.”
Losers they are, both in the ordinary world of their school in small-town Derry Maine and in the mysterious, scarifying world that is either a product of their deeply disturbed psyches or an impinging supernatural world.
The story begins in the late 80s (the time moved forward from the novel’s 50s) with the adolescent Bill making and giving little brother Georgie a paper sailboat. The boy puts on his yellow rain slicker and runs outside to set it afloat in the rain-filled curb gutter. He chases after it as the vessel drifts swiftly down the stream and disappears into a storm sewer. Upset, Georgie kneels to peer into the darkness in the hope of retrieving his treasure. Suddenly staring back at him is the painted face of a clown, beckoning to him as he smiles malevolently. As the film unreels, we will learn that the sewer dweller is named Pennywise (Peter Skarsgard), and his purpose is not harmless entertainment.
Weeks go by as the Denbrough family accepts the assumption that their youngest child is dead—all that is, but guilt-ridden Bill who clings to the hope that his brother is somewhere alive in Derry’s ancient and intricate sewer system. From time to time we see an adult put up another “Child Missing” poster on a telephone pole. A year later, and Bill still hopes to find his brother with the help of his friends.
Along with the stuttering Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), the Losers consist of Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), in frail health and thus frequently using his inhaler to breathe; Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), an African American whose parents died in a fire; Richie (Finn Walthard), a foul-mouthed wisecracker; and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), son of the town’s rabbi. Latecomers to the gang are chubby Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the new kid at school, and Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis). The latter, the Loser’s only girl is rejected by the other girls at school because of unfair rumors that she is promiscuous.
Beverly’s tomboy qualities make her easily acceptable to the members of the Losers, but it is her unfamiliar sex that makes her an object of fascination for them, especially evident in the delightful swimming hole scene. The boys have shed all their clothes but their briefs, and Beverly has done likewise, her two-piece set of underwear revealing as much of the female body as the curious boys had ever seen. All the boys enjoy their first relationship with a girl, and two of them harbor dreams of an even closer bond. A delightful visual touch shows the friends joined in a circle. On the cast of the boy with a broken arm “Losers” has been printed, but now a V has been printed over the S.
The creepiness of the town is emphasized in the scene in which a gang of high school bullies led by Henry Bowes (Nicholas Hamilton) attack Ben on a bridge. A car driven by an adult couple slowly passes by, but even though it is clear what is going on, the adults simply stare as the car continues on. In Stephen King’s world adult s are not care givers—they are either almost entirely absent in the kids’ world, or they are threats to their well-being.
Ben often finds refuge in the town library, where he learns from the newspaper archives that every 27 years Pennywise shows up to kill and eat children. The Losers obtain maps of the sewers and begin to figure out where they might find the malevolent clown as they enter a pact to find and kill him. In several scenes we see that some of them also are in peril from their own parents, especially Beverly whose father has an unhealthy interest in her body. The adolescents’ bond grows closer when they all can see what outsiders cannot, such as the blood spattered all over the bathroom in Beverly’s house. Pennywise seems to know what each kid fears the most and plays upon that fear to intimidate and lure the kid to himself.
Best part of the film, other than that swim scene at the town quarry, is the depiction of the kids discovering that they must work together as a team if they are to survive. They are weak while alone, but together they are strong, as the author of Ecclesiastes observed many centuries ago.
The action and time in this film are contained in the flashbacks of the novel, so there are more encounters between Pennywise and the Losers to come in a sequel. Later when the group comes together after years of separation, the final showdown will take place.
Take the R rating seriously. This is not a family film, the climax being as brutally violent as any film I have seen in a long time. (Fortunately, the filmmakers leave out the novel’s controversial group sexual orgy!) I can easily see how Pennywise could instill Coulrophobia into the minds of children. If you are into the horror genre, this film is a cut above the usual type in which we watch to see which dumb (and deserving of a bad fate) teenager is dispatched in some gruesome manner. Because the coming of age theme is handled so well, we really do care about these “Losers” who struggle to shed their label.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of Visual Parables.