Movie Review: Carrie (2013)

       In 1974, Carrie, a short and unassuming novel about a girl pushed to the breaking point by an abusive mother and the cruelty of her adolescent peers, introduced the world to a young man named Stephen King. This young man, derided early on by critics and contemporaries alike as a hack descendent of the pulp writers of the early 20th century, went on to astound the world to become one of the most commercially (and, after a decades-long wait, critically) successful writers of all time, as well as one of the most prolific. Novels, short stories, comics, memoirs, essays, and screenplays all seem to pour out of King's brain in the amount of time it is taking me to write this opening paragraph, and Hollywood, ever quick to seize an opportunity to strap a cash cow to the milking machines, has been lapping it all up from the very beginning. Over the years King has had dizzying ups and downs at the movies, but it is his first foray into Hollywood, Brian DePalma's fantastic rendition of Carrie a mere two years after the novel's release, that has set the standard for others to follow.

      Strange as this may seem today in the post Jason Takes Manhattan era, but once upon a time, the horror genre had some validity in Hollywood. Both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie received Academy Award nominations for their roles as Carrie and Margaret White, and the film is regularly included in "Best Of" lists of all kinds. So it may seem strange that director Kimberly Peirce would attempt a remake, especially with how reviled that word has become amongst most theatergoers, but nevertheless, here we are.

      The film doesn't fail as spectacularly as one might think, but it also doesn't do anything particularly well. There was much talk leading up to the release about not calling the film a remake, and about going back to King's source material and retelling it in a completely different way. The problem with this, of course, is that Carrie is not a very long or complex book. The novel itself is very short, with its main plot supplemented with newspaper clippings and post-tragedy interviews with the surviving characters, and this format does not necessarily work on film. Anyone deciding to make a movie version of King's novel has to take several liberties with plot reconstruction, and, honestly, DePalma did this in such a definitive way that there really isn't much room to change things around. So regardless of the semantics, this film is definitely a remake of DePalma's version of events, and despite some strong performances, is just simply not as good.

      Taken on its own merits without comparisons to other versions, there are some things to enjoy here. Despite my skepticism, Chloe Grace Moretz is actually the best part of the film. There were many complaints that Moretz was too pretty for the role, but this complaint misses the point entirely. Her appearance is largely incidental -- the same complaint was made about Sissy Spacek initially. None of the three actresses who have no portrayed Carrie have looked anything like King's fat, dumpy, pimply faced girl. People don't pick on Carrie because she is ugly , but because she channels an aura of otherness. Due to her abusive and, well, insane upbringing, the teenage Carrie hasn't been allowed to develop along the same trajectory as the rest of her peers, and in the world of high school, that air of difference paints a giant invisible target on a person and frankly has very little to do with appearance.

      Moretz doesn't quite channel this as well as Spacek did, but that's almost an unfair comparison because I can't think of any actress that would manage that with the same degree of success. Peirce seems to have given her the freedom to bring her own take to this character, and it is mostly successful. This is a very different girl than the one Spacek portrayed -- where the Carrie of the 70's seemed almost terrified of her own abilities, only seeming to access them in moments of intense emotional distress, Moretz's Carrie experiences joy, even moments of ecstasy, in discovering her power and takes visible delight in these abilities. The result is a stronger, more powerful Carrie, and this worked for me in the context of a modern retelling of this story.

       Unfortunately, the freedom that Peirce gave Moretz in bringing a different version of Carrie to the screen didn't seem to be granted to Julianne Moore. Her take on Margaret White was the most disappointing part of this film for me. Moore is a wonderful actress, but there is a sense here that no one involved in this project quite knew what to do with her. While she certainly looks the part and brings genuine menace to her first appearances on screen, it's hard to be afraid of her after we see Carrie pulling a Matilda with all her books and furniture and then destroying an entire town. While Carrie herself is reimagined here, at times it seems like Moore was given Piper Laurie's old script with a couple of notes in the margins. While I enjoyed seeing her self-mutilate, this quieter, more introverted version of Margaret doesn't quite work for me. Maybe if Carrie herself had been made less powerful, Margaret would have seemed more dangerous. Again, possibly an unfair comparison, but this left me really missing Piper Laurie's larger than life performance. I suspect I would have, on some level, been wanting the role to go bigger even if I had never seen the original.

      The rest of the cast mostly falls into the background for me. Judy Greer, another great actress, only works as Ms. Dejardin about half the time. She delivers a couple of one-liners that made me laugh in the film's rare moments of humor, but for the most part I didn't believe her in this role. There's something weak about this character, and I never quite felt any sense of authority from her. While Betty Buckley's version of this woman managed to convince me that a girl like Chris Hargansen would occasionally bend to her command, I never got that sense of power from Greer. Speaking of Chris, Portia Doubleday's performance didn't make me feel much of anything. Chris has a harsher fate this time around, but I couldn't help think how much more satisfying it would have been to see Nancy Allen's version of Chris suffer in the same way.

      Gabriella Wilde's take on Sue Snell left me similarly cold. I think Amy Irving's performance as Sue is the most overlooked and underrated part of the original. This character used to give you weird mixed feelings -- there was always something about her that you weren't quite sure if you were able to trust, and the uncomfortable sense that she had some very sharp edges that she wasn't using. Sue's motivations in the original were a little unclear, and I liked that. You believed that she was able to stand up to a girl like Chris and hold her own, and possibly had her own nefarious reasons for doing so. Here, any of the ambiguity is removed, and we see via her texts with Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort, cute, serviceable, bland) that she is just a nice girl that feels guilty and wants to atone for her actions. This is commendable and admirable, but not necessarily interesting.

      I really wanted to praise Kimberly Peirce's work here. I love her as a person, and I do think she's a great director. Boys Don't Cry is a wonderful film. Unfortunately, I'm baffled by some of her choices here. For one, Carrie has always been a very secular story, and it was this clash against Margret's rigid religiosity that created much of the conflict. Yet in one scene, Carrie makes a crucifix bleed, and this implies that there is a spiritual element at work and I don't understand what it was meant to convey. This film lacks much of the subtlety of the original, and is weaker because of it. The things that DePalma was able to show us with a piece of music or a camera angle or a character's face are, in this film, spelled out for us very blatantly and obviously and it removes much of the nuance and menace that were so memorable and effective. I don't think the audience is ever made as uncomfortable in this version. Her friendship with DePalma may have hurt more than helped this project, as I feel like there's a weird timidity here about stepping out of the shadow of that earlier interpretation.

      And this puts the film in a somewhat strange position. It works best when it allows itself to stray from DePalma's work, but there just simply aren't enough opportunities in the story to do so. There are things about the prom sequence that I actually enjoy more than DePalma's version, and this shows me what a good director Peirce actually is when she's doing her own thing. Unfortunately, Carrie is one of those stories that has become so iconic that even people that haven't seen it know about the opening shower scene, Carrie being locked in the closet, and, yes, the pig's blood cascade. We know that these moments have to be shown in some way, so there is a sense of going through the motions at times. And it is here, when Peirce has no choice but to show the same things that DePalma did, that the film is at its weakest. This is illustrated most clearly in the scenes between Carrie and Margaret at home. These were the best parts of DePalma's version, and since Peirce often uses identical shots and dialogue, the comparison is so inescapable (and unfavorable) even for those trying to judge with a blank slate that the two films might as well be playing side by side in a classic DePalma split-screen.

       While the film does reach an emotionally powerful climax at prom right when it's supposed to (and Peirce is a warmer director than DePalma in regard to character emotion), unfortunately things fall apart after Carrie gets back to the house. Suddenly there is a shift in tone, and it almost feels as if another director stepped in to recreate a late 90's post-Scream knockoff to make room for a sequel (please, please, please no). It seemed like any attention to detail went away in favor of a rush to the end, and one of the best moments, Margaret White's death, loses all of its wonderful crucifixion symbolism and seems almost arbitrary. The last moment in the film is awkwardly cartoonish and out of place alongside everything that came before. 

      Ideally a film will be judged on its own merits, but this one clings to its predecessor so tightly that it would be disingenuous to ignore the obvious comparisons. On paper this remake seemed to have more of a point than many others -- the high school world has changed a lot since the 70's, and in recent years the topic of bullying has been one of great importance and relevance. However, in this case the strength of the original story almost works against it. It is not a universal or timeless story -- Carrie is very much a modern tale of a secular and spiritual clash in suburban America. However, there is enough of an undercurrent of the base and primal emotions inside of us -- those that bubble under the surface brutality of our teen years, metaphorically bathed in blood during the awful and hormonally insane time of adolescence -- to show that, despite recent inventions like cellphones and the internet, King had written a story that was harder hitting and longer lasting than probably he himself could have imagined. At this point in our pop cultural memory (which is usually so fleeting and ephemeral) Carrie has staked a solid and permanent claim in our consciousness, a tragedy as inextricable from modern society as those of Aeschylus or Euripides were to the Greeks (and yes, literary snobs, I just compared Stephen King to Euripides. Eat it.)

       So I will say, although the film itself is not necessary by any means, it is a retelling of a story so powerful and relevant to contemporary society that I can give it a tepid recommendation. Those unfamiliar with the original will probably enjoy it, and I hope that this story resonates with today's teen generation the way the original did in 1976. If nothing else, the tragic tale of Carrie White is one worthy of telling over and over again. Carrie's story serves to caution us against our own frightening tendency to fall into pack mentality and single out those that we hate, those whose weakness we fear and despise because it reminds us of the weakness we fear and despise within ourselves. Particularly at a time in history when bullying and group-think have been made easier, and their effects more public, far-reaching, and potentially damaging than ever before, this film is at least worthy of a casual glance. Rating: B

 

@robrussin

on October 18, 2013