Belittling evil in “IT Chapter Two”
IT Chapter Two
directed by Andy Muschietti
written by Gary Dauberman, based on the novel “IT” by Stephen King
acted by James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Teach Grant, Bill Skarsgård, Andy Bean, Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer
presented by New Line Cinema
distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
running time: 169 minutes
MPAA-rated R for disturbing violent content and bloody images throughout, pervasive language, and some crude sexual material.
by Bill Stamets
Friends are fine things. That’s the sincere moral of “IT Chapter Two.” Along with a tactical takeaway about friendships forged by bullying: friends can bully into oblivion an unnamable entity like the evil ur-bully cited in the title of this long and often entertaining film directed by Andy Muschietti.
To disambiguate the upper-cased “IT”– nothing to do with popular initialism for Information Technology– IT fits somewhere between a personal and an indefinite pronoun. The typeface on posters, trailers and the screen is scrawled in dripping blood. More on IT metaphysics to come.
IT originated on 1153 pages (the number in the “Now a Major Motion Picture” paperback reprint) of a Stephen King novel published in 1986, and adapted in 1990 as a two-part TV miniseries, and then adapted as a feature film in 2017. The book has 23 chapters but 21 further IT films are not in the works. “IT Chapter Two” continues and completes the timeline of King’s “IT,” ending about where the novel does. The meta tagline of this 169-minute film declares: “IT ENDS.”
Finding fault with the endings of novels runs through “IT Chapter Two.” The butt of the in-joke is Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), described in the press notes as “a best-selling horror author and screenwriter.” We meet him in a Warner Brothers studio in Los Angeles. He’s late coming up with the ending for the screen adaptation of one of his novels. The director Peter is played by the always-ascotted director Peter Bogdanovich in a cameo. Everybody hated the ending of that novel and Peter will no doubt hate Bill’s rewrite.
Bill was known as Billy 27 years ago when he was a 12-year-old riding his chrome bike named Silver in Derry, Maine. When he goes back there, he will run into yet another hater of his endings. He spots his beloved, battered Silver in a shop window. The owner is played by none other than Stephen King. A hardcover copy of one of Bill’s novels is on the counter. Bill offers to sign it. “Nah, I didn’t like the ending,” says the shopkeeper.
“Everybody wants a happy ending, everybody wants closure, but that’s not how life works,” Bill pleaded on the film shoot before flying to Derry. Screenwriter Gary Dauberman put those words in Bill’s mouth, so of course “IT Chapter Two” will end happily for Bill back in California at work on his next novel. We can imagine it’s inspired by the IT-related horror he will survive in Derry.
“IT Chapter Two” starts by reprising a scene near the end of “IT” from 2017. Seven friends cut their palms and promise in blood to stand together against IT if it ever comes back. IT killed many in Derry over many years. The seven killed IT, as far as they know. Beverly (Sophia Lillis) shares her dream– seeing all of them together in the future when the middle schoolers are “as old as their parents.” Beverly at that age is now played by Jessica Chastain. “I’ve seen all of us die,” she shares.
“27 Years Later,” reads a title. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) is the one of the seven who never left Derry. For the past 27 years he has obsessively researched local history. Horrors from 27 years ago have come back now. He phones his six friends. “People I don’t even remember forgetting,” reflects one of them, Ben (Jay Ryan). Another is Richie (Bill Hader). Hours after his arrival he will vote to cut short the reunion: “I’ve got a plan– Get the fuck out of Dodge before it ends worse than one of Bill’s books.”
Just before Ben, Bill, Beverly, Richie, et al. get back to Derry, local gay bashers bloody a couple of men who kissed at the town carnival. One is tossed off a bridge into a roiling river. His last sight before going under is an insanely grinning clown on the far bank. He is holding a severed arm and waves it. From under the bridge, scores of big red balloons pass thorough the night sky.
A police radio dispatcher is heard reporting a dismembered body. The end credits include Betty Ripsom’s Legs (Lola Del Re Hudson). Her parents post Missing flyers for her in the earlier film. That’s when Billy’s little brother went missing.
Seven friends must come together again and end this so IT does not end them. In the first film IT staged supernatural one-on-one encounters, as well as immersively interactive VR-like experiences shared by the group. Individually they were vulnerable. They quickly learned to merge their wills into a united front of fear-busters. This was the only way to defend themselves and defeat IT. Yelling “This is not real!” over and over helped dispel IT’s terrorizing illusions that could in fact injure and kill in real life.
But why is IT scaring and killing all these people? Stephen King and New Line Cinema are branded merchants of horror. Consumers in the know may not particularly care what’s up with IT as long as IT’s iterations scare and kill characters. Incoherent mise-en-scène is excusable when the manufacturer of such entertainment stipulates that characters and viewers alike must be incapable of figuring out what’s going on. Unintelligibility can magnify fright. Otherwise, for those not in the know, incoherence smacks of lax screenwriting.
Mike imparts IT’s origin story to Bill via a “microdose” of an hallucinogen extracted from a “root” obtained from a Shokopiwah shaman (Peter George Commanda). This descendant of “early 18th century Native Americans,” Mike claims, “showed me the path, showed me the way It appeared to them, showed me how to stop IT.” If that ritual works, how come the Shokopiwah people did not deploy it long ago? (The indigenous Mi’kmaq people in King’s 1983 novel ”Pet Sematary,” set in a different town in Maine, could not thwart the deadly curse of the Wendigo spirit.
“I saw IT arrive,” testifies Mike, revisiting his own root-spiked vision. Without imbibing a microdose we get to see a flaming thing fall from the sky. IT is alien and sequestered itself where Derry sewer lines would one day intersect. “So all this has been under Derry, like forever?” asks Bill. “Not forever, just a few million years,” clarifies Mike. In King’s novel IT incarnates as a jokey clown with balloons bearing the title of a 1953 film: “IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE.” IT tells Beverly, ”Tell your friends” that IT is “The only survivor of a dying planet.”
Why is IT? What did the good people, or bad, of Derry ever do to deserve IT in its midst? And what does IT have against kids? The Shokopiwah people never invited this extra-terrestrial evil to their pre-colonial lands. I recall characters in one or both of Muschietti’s films mention IT ‘feeding on fears’ as if that emotion is a scarce nutrient in the universe. “It can feed on our fears,” notes Richie, one of the seven Derry friends in the source novel. To overthink this: Did IT consume the fear of other creatures before Maine had people?
IT is not a flesh-eater, like a interplanetary predator in a sci-fi story; nor is IT a supernatural soul-grabber, a mainstay in the horror genre. IT and its motives are opaque in no interesting way. This multiversal nemesis mostly serves to set up CGI chase-and-fight sequences. Gross shocks and macabre ick are overserved.
Of all IT’s nightmarish manifestations– IT can impersonate Billy’s dead little brother and even living Beverly– one persona emerges again and again: a clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). The press notes describe him as “shape-shifting“ in this supposedly “game-changing” film. Pennywise is IT’s factotum and favored avatar. In its true form IT is a mute trio of glowing floating white orbs the size of golf balls, aka “deadlights.”
Dauberman’s best dialogue is Pennywise’s. Laced with insidious giggles, his patter displays rhetorical turns of perverse logic. A virtuoso of cynical sociopathy, Skarsgård deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Words will be his undoing, however. Insults, not imprecations, ultimately defeat Pennywise and his inner IT. Although he wavered earlier, Richie takes the lead to the deathmatch with the deadlights. His friends remind him of how they rallied 27 years ago and once again he proclaims: ”Let’s kill this fucking clown!” Other lines need repeating too. “It’s not real!” deconstructs IT-created fictions. Metal poles are weapons if you keep saying, “This kills monsters If you believe it does.” That actually works.
“All living things must abide by the laws of the shape they inhabit” is a truth Mike got during his Shokopiwah tutorial. The line is taken verbatim from the novel. “IT can only be attacked in its true form,” Mike explains. At this point an outsized Pennywise towers over them, enlarged by their growing fears. Beverly has an idea: “We make him small so that’s how we can kill him.” How? “Make him believe he is.” Mike offers, “There’s more than one way to make someone small.” Bullying. Belittling.
A fusillade of insults ensues: “You’re just a clown!… motherfucking stupid puppet!… You’re a fucking bully!” Dauberman may not pen especially clever slander but it’s effective. Literally and figuratively, Pennywise diminishes both in stature and in esteem. The roaring arrogant specter is reduced to a pathetic mewling toddler. IT’s former victims smash his heart to bits. An extreme close-up of one of the clown’s pupils reveals the three deadlights receding into blackness.
“Loser” was the epithet aimed at the seven friends by the bullies of Derry. That bonded the seven before IT began its extreme bullying. They called themselves the Losers Club, rather like the Deplorables embracing their epithet in the presidential campaign. For the record, what Hillary Clinton said at the LGBT for Hillary Gala in New York City on September 9, 2016 was: ”We are living in a volatile political environment. You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic– you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.” And all those racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes and Islamaphobes bonded and felt better about themselves.
“Dear Losers” is how the one club member who did not return to Derry, Stanley (Andy Bean), addresses letters to the others. His nerve failed 27 years ago, almost dooming his friends. By taking his own life a few hours after Mike called, Stanley made a calculated sacrifice to increase the odds the others would survive their new fight with IT. His self-own: “We’re losers and always will be.”
The disquieting, if not quite typically happy, ending of “IT Chapter Two” implies bullying your bully is a `just war’ option. Losers, arise!