(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Run Time: 135 minutes
(SPOILER ALERT: Numerous secrets about the plot to both the movie and the source novel are revealed in this piece. Fairly warned thee be, says I.)
Stephen King made his fortune in part by understanding the traumas of youth. Many of his most famous works delve deeply into bullying and similar acts of childhood abuse, as well as the subtle ways we never leave the playground when we grow up. That vibe informed his first novel Carrie, whose climactic scene at the senior prom is still the watchword for nerdly revenge.
He repeated the trick in various forms with the likes of Christine, The Dead Zone, Rage, Firestarter and Under the Dome, but after Carrie itself, he probably found his most potent expression in It: a massive novel intended in part as his swan song to horror. The new movie adaptation is officially a sensation, well-earned by director Andy Muschietti and his team. Beyond the skill with which they put it together, however, its resonance feels particularly timely in the era of Donald Trump.
Much has been made of 45’s status as a bully, and even his supporters no longer bother to deny his almost daily expressions cruelty, misanthropy and glee at harming others. There’s often no political gain to be had from his antics: merely the need to demonstrate power over those who cannot fight back. It affects the high as well as the low (just ask Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan), though he clearly saves his choicest vitriol for those least able to defend themselves. And like any bully, he retreats to self-pity when called on his antics. (You can practically set your watch to the “so unfair” tweets when he doesn’t get his way.)
By ascending to the highest office of the land, he makes manifest the implications of King’s works. Bullies endure into adulthood and they don’t change their stripes. They just find new ways to express it. Millions of would-be bullies have found new boldness with the cover he provides. Suddenly, we’re all back on the playground, and the time we’ve spent as adults seems to matter less and less.
The good news is most of us have picked up some wisdom along the way. And we’re no longer willing to quietly endure it.
It finds the right expression for that defiance from the get-go. Indeed it seems more focused on detailing the nature of outsiders and the slings and arrows they endure than frightening us with the titular monster. Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgard) feeds on fear, and the town of Derry, ME offers a bonanza to serve its needs. Derry doesn’t need a supernatural menace to become a place of horror. Combine isolated children and indifferent adults with a whiff of life’s banal tragedies, and the nightmares write themselves. The capering creature in the sewer merely codifies and exacerbates what was always there. Did the town create the monster or the monster the town? King had an answer, but Muschietti is more ambiguous, and his exploration of the question gives the movie far more power than simple shocks would.
The town adults in particular, set the table upon which Pennywise feasts. Most of them simply look the other way when ugliness arises, notably when a passing car continues on its merry way as junior high thug-in-chief Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) carves his initials into the belly of a shrieking victim. It extends more formally to figures like Alvin Marsh (Stephen Bogaert), who routinely abuses his tweener daughter Beverly (Sophia Lillis) and Bowers’s cop father Butch (Stuart Hughes) who fires a loaded pistol at his son’s feet to prove what a coward the boy is.
Butch’s status in law enforcement marks one of the more intriguing changes from the book. King made the same point as the movie does, but limited the impact to police complicity in the senior Bowers’s hate. Butch’s status in law enforcement elegantly compresses a significant chunk of his awful behavior in the book (something Muschetti excels at by necessity considering the novel’s mammoth nature and the limited screen time), as well as slyly commenting on the nature of power. The characters are defined not by whether they possess it, but what they do with it, and in figures of authority, the abuse can be amplified a thousand-fold.
Pennywise, of course, is happy to encourage such casual cruelty, and his influence can be felt in the corners of those dark sequences of abuse: a red balloon in the back of that passing car, a gift-wrapped switchblade for Henry to enact revenge, and a strange TV show that crops up encouraging the victims to kill their tormentors. But it’s also clear that Pennywise didn’t create the situation. The clown arises to feed only once every 27 years, and the torments suffered by Henry, Beverly and the film’s gaggle of protagonists were clearly entrenched for years while the monster slept.
And yet the movie doesn’t use that as an excuse for the likes of Bowers, who eagerly turn their suffering against as many people as they can. We make our own choices when it comes to the pain we inflict, and while the monster can whisper in our ear, we don’t have to listen to it. That comes into play most strongly with that odd television show, playing in the background of both the Marsh and Bowers households. Beverly – played here as much stronger and more righteous than she was in either the book or the 1990 miniseries – marches straight past it without batting an eye. Henry, conversely, listens intently to the show before planting the knife in his sleeping father’s neck. Both children are abused, but only one fights hate with hate. Bev fights back only in self-defense and confronts her father openly. Bowers strikes in the dark when no one can hit back.
That in turn leads to the story’s most important message. King could conceivably have written the novel with only one or two protagonists, but he chose seven: the “Loser’s Club” as they style themselves, containing a who’s who of Not Like Us kids who find comfort and strength in each other. All of them are outsiders. All of them have reasons to be afraid. But unlike Henry, they take their pain as a rallying cry to defend each other. Having been bullied themselves, they refuse to simply look away when others get the same treatment.
It starts with a rock fight against Bowers and his gang, aptly lifted from the book and sending their mutual tormentor packing for the first time in his nasty little life. It continues as they recognize Pennywise’s presence in the town and the source of all those missing children posters. Alone, they can’t face it down, but together they might be able to stop it. (King’s novel made Pennywise more overtly afraid of their potential, while the movie simply implies it… at least for now.)
The strongest symbol of that comes at the end, where – having seemingly vanquished the monster – the Losers cut their palms and join hands in a circle, promising to come back if the monster ever returns. We’ve yet to see Muschietti’s follow-up (and it’s coming faster than you can say “profit margin”), but it will likely cover another important piece of the novel: the way we interpolate bullying as adults and how dealing with it on the grown-up playground means learning a different set of rules.
I read the novel in a white heat at the age of 14 and its lessons never really left me. I imagine it’s the same way with a lot of King’s fans, especially those of a certain age. (Updating the book’s 1950s setting to the 80s is a masterful touch as far as we Gen Xers are concerned.) I thought about it a lot while watching Trump’s endless string of awful behavior, particularly his hostile stance towards immigrants and refugees. But I also thought about the way so many people have responded to his affronts… notably the mass airport protests in late January to stop his ill-conceived executive order. I thought about the Losers with their rocks, their circle, and their need to step up when nobody else would. It gave me hope. You can hide from the bully and pray he won’t find you, or you can join with others so afflicted and make a stand. King knew the score on that front and so does Muschietti, as his movie reflects in myriad ways. Trump likes calling others “losers” too, another parallel that isn’t easily dismissed. It’s greatest strength is understanding what a badge of honor the term really is.