I’m quite aware that many of the people who will read this have no intention of watching “that scary clown movie.” Yes, those creepy red balloons are back, and yes, there are plenty of jump scares and gooey CGI creations. But honestly, “It” and its sequel are not really horror movies on the level of, say, this summer’s “Crawl”—products churned out for a few million dollars and calculated to make some quick cash thanks to the genre’s massive multiplier effect. Instead, I’d classify them as those rarest of cinematic things: big-budget adventure stories for adults, which have more going on beneath the surface than merely a hunger for fast profits.
Picking up 27 years after the first film, “Chapter Two” follows the members of the Losers’ Club (Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, and Andy Bean), who all moved away during the years following the first film, as they reconvene in their hometown of Derry, Maine. Strange killings have begun again, signaling that the eponymous clown-demon (Bill Skarsgård) is once more on the prowl. This time, the Losers must vanquish it once and for all—by recovering “tokens” of their past that, when joined together, offer a chance of defeating the evil creature.
The film clocks in at almost three hours—and, to be fair, it does sag at a few points (the “token hunts” follow a formulaic pattern: buildup —> Pennywise attack —> resolution). But the storytelling pieces come together at last, and all the stray plot points resolve in an extended and intense climax, one that serves as a satisfying payoff of all the themes that’ve been built up across both films. There aren’t many films that still feel like cathartic experiences, but “It: Chapter Two” is one of them.
There’s lots more I could write about the film itself, but what’s been especially interesting to me is the film’s mixed reception from certain critics—many of whom seem to be writing about a different movie than the one that played onscreen. Perhaps the most obvious example is a particularly atrocious review of the film by Vox’s Aja Romano, which contains the following remarks:
“The story always reminds you that Pennywise is born out of the rotting putrefaction of small-town America, specifically Derry itself. . . . [The film] wants us to know that the real evil in Derry is Derry itself and that Derry is every small American town. It delivers a few pointed establishing shots of the waning factory town completely covered in American flags. But despite the clearly political overtones of the adaptation, It doesn’t evince much self-knowledge about what its own politics are. In fact, if anything, it reifies rather than deconstructs the societal factors that cyclically make America evil again.”
Virtually everything in this is wrong. For one thing, the film takes pains to establish that Pennywise, the clown-demon, is a kind of cosmic extraterrestrial invader (the film’s final conflict even takes place at the site of its initial impact)—not a kind of avatar of rural rage. It makes no sense at all to treat Pennywise as a metaphor for American Deplorables, because it’s not as if our heroes become existentially fulfilled as soon as they leave the town. Their urbane post-Derry lives lives have plenty of dark edges of their own. Whatever Pennywise represents or symbolizes, it’s not something that maps seamlessly onto the contemporary political landscape.
Moreover, Romano’s take totally misses the genius of Stephen King’s original work. The film’s entire moral core is built on the juxtaposition of “good” elements of small-town life (friendship, tradition, bicycles, paper boats, swimming holes) with the “bad” (bullying, failure to reckon with the past, and so on). That is consistent with the broader body of King’s works: their lingering power comes from the intersection of the universal (common human experiences, such as coming-of-age, first love, marriage, parenthood, and so on) and the particular (the distinctive features of any individual life, which no one else can share). There is little room in this storytelling paradigm for “structural” critique—that which inherently blurs messy particularities in favor of a motif of unified struggle. And when King has attempted to get “political,” as in 2017’s “Sleeping Beauties,” the results are…not satisfying.
In short, “It” is simply not a story about America as a whole or about universal patterns of oppression. It is an irreducibly localist narrative, one that cannot really be understood or appreciated apart from affinity with a particular place and a particular set of childhood memories. If King’s “The Stand” is an urbanist’s vision of horror—massive, apocalyptic-scale destruction resulting in the collapse of civilization and the emergence of new political communities—“It” is the mirror image, a story that captures the anxieties specific to smaller communities.
The film adaptation—as glossy and viscerally satisfying as it is—doesn’t perfectly capture that sensibility (most notably, the unforgettable weirdness of the novel’s Ritual of Chüd, a ceremony capable of banishing Pennywise, doesn’t really come through on film). But the DNA of the story remains intact, and that’s something to celebrate.
For plenty of audiences, “It: Chapter Two” (and its predecessor) will always just be “the scary clown movie”—no more, no less. But happily, the soul of the novel—or at least its best parts—is still there, reminding viewers the humblest and most mundane things in life (one’s town, one’s memories, one’s childhood promises) are worth fighting for. Indeed, they may be the things most worth fighting for.