It’s time for the Losers Club to go back to Derry, Maine, as IT: Chapter Two picks up the story 27 years later, with Pennywise having resurfaced after a long hibernation. With bodies piling up in the sleepy town, Mike Hanlon, the only Losers Club member to stay in Derry, is forced to call on his friends to return, even though they have little to no memory of their initial encounter with Pennywise, or of even living in Derry. With their memories slowly returning upon arrival, they’ll fight to make good on the promise they made to each other as kids to stop the creature known as “It” once and for all.
The challenge of adapting IT is certainly one that requires a great deal of heavy lifting on the part of the filmmakers. The original novel is over 1000 pages long, with the narrative leaping between the adult and adolescent versions of the main characters in a rather whimsical fashion. Separating those portions of the story into two independent films was a necessary gamble for director Andy Muscietti, and one that both helps and hinders the end result. The cohesiveness of IT: Chapter One as its own self-contained narrative is a far better service to the characters as children than if the larger narrative were framed within the portions of the characters as adults. Seeing how they bonded and initially “defeated” Pennywise uninterrupted, builds a stronger foundation for the continuation of the story in Chapter Two. As we watch individual characters remember moments from the summer of 1989 not featured in the preceding film, there is a much stronger sense of attachment to these characters as a whole that’s immensely satisfying, and makes them feel like less of a plot device. This does however lead to a rather expedited re-introduction to the characters as adults that gives ups less time to properly establish all of them in their post-Derry lives, given the urgency of them needing to return.
The approach does however prove especially beneficial to certain characters, namely Eddie and Ritchie, played as adults by James Ransone and Bill Hader respectively. Both turn in stellar performances that bring a great deal of emotional weight to the film, as well as a surprisingly high dose of comedy that initially caught me off-guard, more so than in the preceding film. There’s a level of trauma and turmoil that both characters have to confront, but it is a credit to the actors, Hader especially, that they were able to use humor in a way that cuts the tension of any given scene without undermining the drama or horror. In fact, it adds to it. Isaiah Mustafu, meanwhile, has come a long way from his Old Spice commercials, turning in an equally strong performance as Mike Hanlon. As the only one to never leave Derry, Mike carries the burden of remembering everything about their first encounter with Pennywise that the other Losers have forgotten, and he has spent the last 27 years preparing for the demonic clown’s return. This mission has left him a frantic, broken man who’s never given himself the chance to have any kind of real life. Mustafa wears the weight of this on his face, and with his high-strung mannerisms in every scene he’s in.
Given these performances, some of the other actors in IT: Chapter Two feel slightly less impactful by comparison. What with her rising profile as an actress in general, and her having already worked with Andy Muscietti on Mama, many of us were able to successfully predict Jessica Chastain’s casting as adult Beverly the moment the end credits rolled on IT: Chapter One. And while her performance in Chapter Two is strong, it’s never quite as commanding as Sophie Lillis’ portrayal of Beverly as a pre-teen. Jay Ryan as Ben has a few brief glimmers of greatness, but tends to fade into the background in too many scenes. Admittedly, this may just be a function of his character and his place within the Losers Club, but it’s once again a case of the actor being outshone by their adolescent counterpart.
The biggest disappointment however, is James McAvoy as the adult Bill Denbrough. For as commanding an actor as McAvoy usually is, it’s surprising to watch IT: Chapter Two and find him to be the weakest link in the cast. His performance isn’t bad so much as it is woefully innocuous. Everyone else is given so much more material to work with, that his character feels like a fifth wheel. Bill’s arc as an individual character was such a large part of Chapter One, and a motivating factor that extended to the Losers Club as a whole. As it stands, his story was far more tangibly resolved at the end of that film, that what is presented in Chapter Two feels laughably redundant.
Bill Skarsgard is still absolutely terrifying as Pennywise, but the film devotes very little screen time to the character, relying more on CG jump scares and creature performances from Javier Botet. And while the over-reliance on CGI in this film versus Chapter One can prove tiresome, Muscietti still has an understanding of how to create an atmosphere that is truly haunting and menacing throughout most of the film. The build-up to a scare in multiple scenes is still incredibly effective, especially as characters stare into dark voids, not sure what will emerge from them, or how quickly they’ll emerge, for that matter. Beverly’s conversation with an old woman now residing in her old apartment leads to easily one of the most unsettling moments in the film. There are definitely a wealth of new creatures on display in IT: Chapter Two that are sure to haunt your dreams. Yet one of the scariest moments in the film comes at the very beginning, and is sadly all too relatable to events in real life. It is visceral, traumatic, and ugly in a way that illustrates what Derry represents in relation to Pennywise’s presence, and certainly not an easy scene to watch, regardless of how much it plays into the overall story of IT.
IT: Chapter Two may work better as a reflective drama than it does as a horror film, but this isn’t to say that the horror elements should be dismissed. Ultimately, much of the film is both strengthened and weakened by its cast and story structure. You certainly feel the length of the film, clocking in at just under three hours, but one would struggle to find ways to bring it to a more digestible runtime. Some actors we were looking forward to seeing the most in the film, turn in some of the weakest performances, but even that isn’t a concrete negative when other cast members are offering up performances that may prove to be high points in their careers. And as it stands, the actors making up the adult version of the Losers Club all still have more than enough chemistry as an ensemble to forgive a small number of the film’s missteps. IT: Chapter Two is a solid an ending as fans of the original novel could hope for, allowing us to be fully invested in its characters, while still coming through with some satisfying scares.
(3.5 out of 5)