CARRIE (2013)

Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on October 17, 2013, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Among the reasons cited for giving Stephen King’s Carrie another cinematic whirl, one of the most prominent has been the rise of bullying as a concern since Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation. And yet it’s when the new version leaves the teen milieu and focuses on Carrie’s home life that it is at its strongest.

Hewing close enough to the De Palma film that that movie’s scripter Lawrence D. Cohen receives screenplay credit over new writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Carrie 2013 nonetheless opens with an original scene establishing that fanatically religious Margaret White (Julianne Moore) has had a conflicted relationship with her daughter literally from the child’s birth. Sixteen years or so later, Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a high-school misfit who withdraws into the corners of classrooms and the gymnasium shower room. It is in the latter that she suffers her extreme humiliation, tied to her coming of age as a young woman and the story’s recurring blood motif. In one of the most prominent modern twists, it’s captured on cell-phone video by mean girl Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday), who posts it on-line.

From these early scenes, it’s clear that director Kimberly Peirce is aiming for something very different from De Palma’s extreme stylization. Eschewing an amped-up approach to visualizing the violence and its threat (as well as the eroticization of the showering girls), Peirce grounds the movie in a sympathetic portrait of Carrie’s travails, creating a study of a tormented outsider akin to her galvanizing debut feature Boys Don’t Cry. As there, Peirce works well with her lead actress, and Moretz confronts the unenviable task of following up Sissy Spacek’s iconic portrayal with aplomb and commitment. Yes, she’s prettier than King’s Carrie, and than one might expect for such a shunned character, but Moretz and Peirce make their Carrie a girl whose prettiness is smothered under a cloak of insecurity and self-doubt, maneuvering the school halls with her eyes cast down as if solely concerned with just surviving each day.

As recent media reports have made clear, there are a lot of girls like Carrie out there, which does indeed make her plight a pertinent one for modern times—and yet, the filmmakers don’t go as far as they could with the idea. What happens to Carrie in the shower room is horrific, but as presented here, it feels like an isolated incident of awfulness instead of being part of an ongoing campaign of harassment. (Where De Palma opened by having one of Spacek’s classmates hit her with a volleyball, here Moretz accidentally nails Doubleday with one instead.) The general attitude of the school population toward Carrie seems to be casual disdain rather than focused antagonism; heck, a boy in the library even stops to help her out when she goes online (for what is evidently the first time) to research the telekinetic abilities she’s started to demonstrate. Compared to the unfortunate accounts in the news lately, you almost get the feeling Carrie could have it worse.

And she does—when she returns to her home and Margaret, who abuses her both physically and psychologically in the name of keeping her “pure.” Moore, toning things way down from Piper Laurie’s holy-roller act in the ’76 film, enacts a compelling portrait of a woman consumed by her faith, to the point where she punishes herself as well as her daughter. Her calm demeanor makes the moments when Carrie struggles to connect with her all the more poignant, and Aguirre-Sacasa adds some nice grace notes to their verbal confrontations. This Carrie can quote Scripture in her own cause as well as Margaret, and even calls her mother out for citing “verses” not actually present in the Bible.

Such minor alterations aside, this Carrie follows the playbook familiar from the novel and previous film, which means that younger audiences unfamiliar with either one will likely be its most receptive audience. Those who know them well may find that the dramatic force of the mother-daughter conflict helps make up for the feeling of déjà vu hanging over the film as it proceeds toward its spectacular conclusion at the prom. Carrie’s attitude toward the psychic abilities that play into that conflagration has been modified as well; rather than simple curiosity, she feels a sense of emotional empowerment, and there’s a sense that, were it not for the intervention of Chris and her thug boyfriend Billy Nolan (Alex Russell), that dance might have been the beginning of a happy ending for Carrie. (On that note, Chris and Billy have more interesting personalities than Gabriella Wilde’s Sue Snell and Ansel Elgort’s Tommy Ross, who are WB-beautiful and handsome and rather on the bland side.)

When things inevitably go terribly wrong, Peirce choreographs and cuts the mayhem with a visceral impact that’s startling in contrast to the quieter drama that has come before. Nonetheless, her finale packs less of a body count than either King’s or De Palma’s, as if to focus the real climactic attention back on the White house and the ultimate tete-à-tete between Carrie and Margaret. Here as before, their interactions feel persuasive and real, albeit augmented with bits of too-obvious CGI, plus a new addition to the setpiece that’s puzzling, coming off like the remnants of a more concrete attempt to set up a sequel.

Carrie was always going to be a particular challenge to remake, given how specific a story it is and how indelibly it has been told before (the poster phrase “You will know her name” seems a rather odd line to apply to a project so dependent on recognition of that name). If it doesn’t make good on the promise of reinventing the material in terms of current relevance, it takes a commendably serious-minded approach to a narrative that could have easily been played in a more exploitative fashion, and its two lead performances deliver effective variations on the theme.

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