Andrés Muschietti’s It, based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King, has surpassed fiscal and cultural expectations as it boasts an impressive $123 million opening weekend gross and widespread critical praise. The accuracy of the adapted narrative and chemistry of its young protagonists have both been singled out by critics as contributing to the film’s runaway success. Well, those and a shape-shifting clown named Pennywise.
The immediately identifiable pale-faced and red-lipped antagonist of the film, Pennywise the Dancing Clown has been front and center for It since the film revealed his look at the end of 2016, and for good reason. Portrayed by Bill Skarsgård with utterly terrifying grace, Pennywise stands out in a film filled with unique and bone-chilling imagery. Although the movie was only recently released, it’s time to address the demonic child-eating clown in the room: Bill Skarsgård deserves an Oscar nod for this role.
The odds were most certainly stacked against him. Tim Curry’s performance as the clown from the 1990’s mini-series of the same name has been the definitive (and only other) portrayal of the entity and is traumatically seared into the psyches of 90’s kids everywhere. The troubled pre-production of the film, which saw original director, Cary Fukunaga, depart also caused his pick for Pennywise, Will Poulter, to leave as well. Once Muschietti took over directorial duties, he and his crew cast Skarsgård, and the newcomer seemed like a hasty replacement. Fortunately for Pennywise’s newest inhabitant, he not only acutely differentiates himself from Curry but also eradicates the notion that anyone else could have played the role nearly as well.
Curry played Pennywise as two beings housed in one form. At first, he was calm, collected and persuasive to lure in his prey, before turning brutish and bullying. While understandably scary, the performance lacks nuance. Curry’s Pennywise is polar through and through. While that approach may have worked for a two-part mini-series with a significantly smaller budget than the 2017 adaptation, Muschietti’s feature needed a Pennywise that wasn’t so binary to suspend an audience’s disbelief, and it found that in Skarsgård.
From the opening scene with little Georgie Denbrough and the sewer grate, to his final confrontation with the Losers’ Club, Skarsgård’s Pennywise exudes a sort of appalling irreverence about his killings – the hunt – making him all the more disturbing. Like a child, he giggles and plays off the horrific nature of his crimes with a sly smirk and almost no dialogue. The character’s longest, uninterrupted, speeches bookend the film and even then, they’re no more than a few sentences. Physically, Skarsgård saunters towards the various children of Derry, ME, like a ragdoll learning to walk on its own for the first time. The immaturity he brings to the character is bolstered by the creature’s malevolent intent. The actor intertwines animalistic brutality with playfulness rather than separating them, making his encounters with the members of the Losers’ Club wrought with tension. In these sequences, Skarsgård relaxes and really lets loose as though each limb were independent of the body as a whole. He plays Pennywise as the character should be played, powerful and aware of it.
Perhaps the most unnerving trait that Skarsgård adeptly taps into is an element of unabashed glee. His Pennywise is a monster and he loves being one. Whereas Curry’s Pennywise seemed only superficially satisfied toying with his victims, Skarsgård’s take on the character practically oozes with delight in psychologically torturing his food. Even when wounded, a smile is plastered on his face as though pain poses no threat which makes him all the more powerful and captivating on screen.
Skarsgård more than rightfully earns an Academy Award nomination, at the very least, because of how seamlessly he plays a character devoid of any semblance of humanity who is defined by the most human of emotions – sheer joy. But even that statement is not entirely accurate. The actor’s portrayal is so haunting because of the very fact that Pennywise ceases to be just a character for Skarsgård. The clown is so viscerally insidious in his execution that he, arguably, raises the poignant nature of the narrative in which he plays villain. Skarsgård so vehemently becomes ‘It’ that he surpasses the film itself. The transformation of actor into what feels like an actual autonomous being is classic Academy nomination fodder.
The only other contemporary actor who evoked a similar response was, ironically enough, Heath Ledger for his portrayal of the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Both Ledger and Skarsgård manage to unshackle themselves from reality, from the bonds of familiarity in their performances so that they stop being just performances. Each actor literally refocuses a film on himself even when he, debatably, is not intended to be the center of attention. Ledger’s Joker makes Batman a supporting player in his own movie, and Skarsgård’s Pennywise weaponizes innocence in a film dealing with its loss. Skarsgård is just as magnetic and therein lie his Academy-worthy qualifications.
Come January, will Skarsgård’s name be among those announced to compete for the latest iteration of Hollywood’s ‘who’s who?’ Probably not. Despite his incomparable performance, Skarsgård is still bogged down by the core of It’s success – its place in the annals of horror cinema. The Academy has a history of neglecting genre films, particularly those dealing with the supernatural or horror, even if they harbor critically-acclaimed performances. Maybe it’s because of tradition, maybe it’s because genre films are simply not consistently well-made or maybe, hypothetically speaking of course, it’s because the Academy is just pretentious and finds comfort in safety rather than in risk and innovation, but who’s to say really? Perhaps with It’s massive opening weekend and rave reviews, coupled with a tepid response to other summer blockbusters and indie films alike, perhaps it’ll be the horror film to upset a status quo of cinematic pedantry at the Oscars. Perhaps with such a big splash in such a monotonously oversaturated market, Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise and It can float straight to the top.
Featured image via Warner Bros.