No matter how much we want it to, the past rarely stays behind. A song, a story, a face, anything which might elicit the slightly remembrance, and we’re right back in that moment like it’s yesterday. Of the many themes that inhabit Stephen King’s book It, this is perhaps the strongest, the idea that unless we confront our past, it’ll always be hunting for us, searching for us, craving for us to come back. In the second half of King’s adaptation, returning director Andy Muschietti (Mama) and writer Gary Dauberman (The Nun) dig into this in full-force as the Losers’ Club reunites 27 years after they thought they’d defeated Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgård) and saved their town of Derry, Maine. Interestingly, it’s not their conflict with Pennywise that draws the audience in, but the individual journeys each Loser must take to finally stop running from their past and move forward.
To get a sense of this writer’s thoughts on Chapter One, you can read the spoiler-free review here.
In the present (set in 2016), things seem to be going fine for the adult Losers. Though separated by time and distance, each respective member is called back to Derry by Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) when a series of dismemberments begin to occur around town. Though each one experiences a different reaction to his or her call, they each heed it and come home. Slowly, the memories of their time fighting Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), playing at the quarry, and the creature which brought them together as a make-shift family return. It doesn’t matter how far they’ve come as adults, how they’ve transformed themselves, or how they’ve coped with their forgotten childhood, Pennywise is back and will stay for good if the Losers don’t stand up and fight.
The original It (2017) cast set the bar incredibly high for their adult counterparts. There was a naturally chemistry among the group of young actors which made their continually trials against society and Pennywise far more compelling than one might expect. Respectively, James McAvoy takes over Bill for Jaeden Martell, Jessica Chastain takes on Beverly for Sophia Lillis, Bill Hader succeeds Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier, James Ransone embodies Jack Dylan Grazer’s Eddie, Jay Ryan steps in as Ben for Jeremy Ray Taylor, and Mustafa embodies Chosen Jacobs. Considering the mark made upon audiences by the original cast two years ago, even this collection of talented actors faced an uphill battle in making the audience believe in them as much as individuals and as a group. What audiences are gifted with in Chapter Two feels like pure magic. This cast not only captures the characters, but the performances from the younger cast. It’s not just performative, it’s as though they each inhabit the shared role in a way which never reduces the performance of any actor on either end of the spectrum. For many audiences, the actors comprising the adult Losers possess a certain amount of audience goodwill, but what they give back is far more wondrous and delightful. This is made certain in their first gathering after years apart in which they dine at a Chinese restaurant. These adults, long since separated and with only their childhoods giving them any kind of kinship, almost immediately fall back in old habits of speech and interaction in the same way we all naturally regress when we spend time with people we knew in our past. The scene feels like the kind of coming home we all want: warm, accepting, and nostalgic without the bitter aftertaste.
Of the central cast, there are two incredible stand-outs: Hader and Ransone. With a cast running over with talent, these two end up taking over the spotlight from the love triangle of Bill-Bev-Ben (which strangely never seemed to resonate as interesting in Chapter One) as their individual stories connect with the audience much more than you’d expect after Chapter One. Ritchie’s grown up into a comedian, while Eddie’s a risk analyst, gigs the motormouth and perpetually terrified kids are well suited for, so their reactions to Pennywise’s trials are not just natural, they’re congruent with their respective journeys. In conjunction with performances from Hader and Ransone, we bear witness to something which transcends humor-as-deflection and becomes something so real it’ll break your heart to watch. One criticism some might find in Chapter Two is how frequently humor is injected into horror elements where it didn’t present itself in Chapter One, something which both actors do without a hint of excess. To this point, remember that this is the second time the Losers are battling with Pennywise. Though scared, they have some sense of what’s going on now and, with that, greater control of their reactions. Worth also mentioning is Mustafa and how he shrinks his typically large presence to provide a physical manifestation of the pressure Mike’s been under due to his vigilant watch over Derry. Though less time is spent on his character, his story is no less evocative or heartbreaking.
Another strong aspect of Chapter Two is how it uses the themes of the past and belief within the narrative. As mentioned, the world can be a terrifying place to children, but, as an adult, we see the world differently. There are things that unnerve us, yet, with the gift of perspective given by time, how we react is entirely different. In a physical sense, the past is represented two ways: as timelessness via Pennywise and the corporeal via an adult Bowers (Teach Grant), both intent on vengeance for perceived ills. The Losers aren’t really aware of how Pennywise has molded the town psychologically, making it a breeding ground for abuse, homophobia, and racism, but they do know that the town is filled with corrupt people. This influence has been molded into serrated edge with Bowers and Pennywise welds it erratically. In the literal sense, as the Losers deal with their physical and psychological tormentor, they finally grow beyond the things that shackled them as children. Growth is painful and exceedingly hard for some. Harder for those in a Stephen King story. To help cope, the Losers remind each other that defeating Pennywise is more about what they believe than what they do. They can be scared. They can be ready to run for wherever they came from before Mike’s call. However, if they believe that the fence post which Beverly used against Pennywise as a child can kill monsters as an adult, then that’s enough to bring a god-like creature to its knees. Belief is love disguised as hope. By holding onto their belief in each other as a group, their love protects them from whatever horrors they face.
Now about those horrors….
The strangest part of Chapter Two is the overall lack of terror or tension. The tricks on display are largely rehashes of what we’ve seen in the first film. That, by and large, doesn’t mean that they don’t appear visually disturbing, it’s just that they lack some of the oomph present in Chapter One. Some of this may be attributed to either Pennywise’s reliance on the same tricks which disturb children or the fact that the Losers are now adults and are more capable of discerning the truth from Pennywise’s reality-altering fictions. Narratively these are interesting elements to explore, but that’s not the purpose of the scenes as presented. They aren’t seeking to explore the nuance of an adult’s changed perception or Pennywise’s seeming indomitability, but seek to terrify the audience via jump scares and creatures running at the screen in pursuit of the Losers. After a time, it’s so repetitive as to become dull and monotonous. The only time there’s any sense of uncertainty is when Pennywise goes after victims who are not in the club. Suddenly the true horror of Pennywise comes flooding back, making the other sequences paler and less evocative in comparison.
Another clear weakness in Chapter Two comes in the adaptation process. The story jumps back and forth in time, something which Chapter One avoided which kept the narrative focused, the tension maintained, and the terror constant. In Chapter Two, the requirement to hit certain beats results in several deviations from the main story which seem to slow down the pacing or reduce the general anxiety the audience should be feeling. Instead, sequences showing the young Losers before and after Pennywise’s supposed-defeat place a drag on the momentum, leaving the narrative to constantly try to rev up again and again. While important to the overall character journeys, the trips down memory lane grid the tension to a halt. In combination with the inclusion of adult Henry on the warpath, Pennywise stops being a specter of danger, the looming presence who could appear anywhere in Chapter One, and is just this thing the Losers will eventually confront.
When all is said and done, Chapter Two offers a satisfying ending that feels absolutely earned. Growing up isn’t about happy endings, but is about the acceptance of who we are, a realization which inspires strength in the face of absolute terror. Though there’s a higher reliance on CG over practical effects and so many of the scares rehash moments in Chapter One, Muschietti’s directorial command and wonderful ingenuity in creating Pennywise’s trials via practical effects salvage the otherwise sluggish experience. If nothing else, there’s a resonate message about how we can comfort ourselves in the darkest moments of our youth, just like the Losers: It ends where It begins as long as we stick together.
In theaters nationwide September 6th, 2019.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.