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Carrie

October 22, 2013
Carrie

It’s impossible to review Kimberly Pierce’s adaptation of Carrie without considering Brian De Palma’s 1976 version. So I went back and watched the original right before seeing the new one, and I have to say: it really doesn’t hold up. Pierce’s Carrie, whatever else you may say about it, is clearly superior to De Palma’s with richer, more fully-realized characters and dynamics. It’s also got much better effects, though with almost forty years’ separation that’s not really any knock on De Palma.

There was some expectation that Boys Don’t Cry director Pierce might infuse some new feminist blood into the female-heavy story, but that doesn’t seem to be the case; she sticks pretty close to the same beats as De Palma used, and that may be for the best. Carrie is, for all its resonance, a pretty lightweight story, and it might easily become unbalanced with more politics bolted on.

One notable — and I think important — change is in the emphasis placed on Carrie’s tormentors. In De Palma’s version she was first and foremost a bullying victim, who was also subjected to her religious-fanatic mother; Pierce’s Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz) is motivated primarily by the fear of her mother (Julianne Moore) — a mother who calls her a tumor, and is so convinced Carrie is a product of sin that she comes within inches of slaughtering her newborn infant — and only secondarily concerned with her schoolyard antagonists. After Carrie’s traumatic and unexpected first period in the gym showers — video of her breakdown making its way to YouTube, naturally — she sits sullenly in the principal’s office. It’s only when he suggests calling her mother that she becomes animated, and her panic drives her latent telekinetic powers to shatter a water cooler behind her.

And this also brings up another improvement: Moretz may indeed lack Sissy Spacek’s awkward, gangly form and spotty complexion — yes, she’s downright pretty in her way, when maybe she should have gone the route of Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich — but she actually has some recognizable emotions. Spacek’s Carrie is buried in her introversion, and even when she breaks out she spends the whole climax of the movie staring around like a lizard. If her telekinesis is the realization of years of abuse and frustration and rage, I kinda want to see Carrie look like she feels something, and Moretz delivers on that.

It’s not just anger that she delivers, though; she has a whole range of emotions. There’s her unease when popular boy Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) asks her to prom instead of his girlfriend Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), one of Carrie’s bullies who’s starting to regret her actions. There’s a cautiously happy self-satisfaction when Carrie first tests her powers intentionally — a scene De Palma’s version is missing entirely. There’s even genuine concern for her mother, bringing another complicating layer to that relationship.

And Moore’s Margaret is also an improvement over Piper Laurie’s bare histrionics. Pierce decides to expand on King’s hints of self-mutilation as an amateurish version of mortification of the flesh. She hits her head against a wall and digs her nails into her arms; scars hidden by her modest sleeves and skirts show that this has been going on a long time.

There’s even more nuance to the interactions between Sue Snell and Chris and Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday); their dialogue manages to explore how they each wrestle with their conscience, and shows how they end up going in their separate directions. About the only female character that isn’t materially improved is Judy Greer — the former Fern Mayo herself — as the P.E. teacher Miss Desjardin, but her performance is easily as strong as Betty Buckley’s was.

And when it comes down to the famous prom scene, Pierce’s Carrie leaves De Palma’s in the dust. Obviously the effects are better, but it’s also so much clearer what’s going on, and there’s a lot more going on. This is no mere “rocks fall; everybody dies” total-party-kill scene; Carrie takes specific, intentional vengeance on her classmates, and even has the presence to recognize some of the less-guilty among them.

De Palma’s Carrie does have a certain greatness in how very De Palma it is, down to all the cheap-but-effective film school tricks he uses. And this is far from Pierce’s best cinematic work as a director. But the improvements Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa brings to the script, the rebalanced emphasis on the relationships between the various women, and the more nuanced, emotional performances across the board combine to make this a better adaptation of King’s work even before you factor in the improvements in special-effects technology over the last few decades.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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