I’d like to take a moment to talk about Bill Skarsgård’s performance as Pennywise, and particularly the drain scene, as it’s the only one I can repeatedly watch a portion of in good quality to analyze his physicality in the role.
Because so much of his performance is made by his movements, even in the aforementioned scene where he’s just a talking head:
Cover up the eye on your right, and Pennywise is looking up out of the storm drain at Georgie. Cover the eye on your left, and where’s it looking? Right at you.
Pennywise’s eyes move independently like this throughout the movie, and it’s not a CGI effect. Skarsgård has a lazy eye and while he can focus it, he’s also able to relax the muscle and put it back out of alignment. And while having strabismus obviously isn’t a choice on Skarsgård’s part, he uses it brilliantly in this movie when he could have just not utilized it at all. You’d think having a wandering eye would make him seem less threatening (usually when you see lazy eyes on film, they’re on comedic actors such as Marty Feldman or Steve Buscemi). But he positions himself with the camera so perfectly, making his character seem like a threat who can see through the protection of the fourth wall. Even if you don’t consciously notice that it’s looking at you, it’s these little details Skarsgård adds that make Pennywise seem just wrong.
(His contorted bottom lip is another of these traits. That’s not a prosthetic like his cheeks are, it’s just something he does).
Because that’s the thing about Pennywise: It’s not an evil clown. It’s not human. It is alien and unfathomable and everything Skarsgård does with his performance reminds you of that. Tim Curry’s Pennywise (whom I love and this is not a knock on his take) was an evil clown who was also an otherworldly abomination. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is an extraterrestrial horror who is wearing a clown’s skin, and it doesn’t quite fit.
Just look at the sewer scene: You’re seeing an animal that just came out of hibernation and is so hungry for a meal that it can barely keep itself from revealing the ruse to its prey. It wants Georgie to trust it, like it, and approach it, and its voice is gentle (for it), and it’s funny and inviting. But it’s also drooling all over as if it doesn’t understand or doesn’t care how a human mouth works, and it doesn’t know or care how people focus their eyes either. It’s struggling to hold itself together and it’s very close to breaking: it growls at Georgie in the middle of the scene, and surely it’s learned in the last few centuries that humans don’t growl mid-conversation?
You could argue that it’s not failing to act human, it just needs Georgie to be scared to eat him. Fair enough, but Pennywise doesn’t reveal its true self until it’s already holding onto its meal in the book. And in the movie, it’s clearly anxious when it thinks it might have scared its prey away:
(The nerves don’t come out as well in the photo, but if you watch the shortened clip here, around 43 seconds in, it swallows hard and is obviously worried Georgie might leave: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jwlbgSHZgk)
It’s unnerving. It makes you shudder even when it makes you laugh. And Skarsgård puts that much uneasiness into a scene showing just his head, shoulders, and occasionally his hand. In the scenes utilizing his whole body, it gets even more eerie.
It’s a fantastic performance. And even more so because some of these things were not entirely under Skarsgård’s control: He couldn’t choose to have strabismus and the drooling was caused by his prosthetic teeth. But rather than trying to hide anything, he embraced it, and managed to make things as human as saliva and wandering eyes seem utterly monstrous.
I really hope the sequel gives Pennywise more dialogue and still scenes, because it’s a thousand times more disturbing there than it is when it’s darting at the camera.