Written by: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (screenplay), Lawrence D. Cohen (original screenplay), Stephen King (novel)
Directed by: Kimberly Peirce
Starring: Chloe Moretz, Julianne Moore, and Judy Greer
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“You know the devil never dies, keeps coming back. But you gotta keep killing him."
The latest incarnation of Carrie might be the most frustrating sort of revisit imaginable; sure, it’s always disconcerting when a remake completely flames out from the get-go and very little works, but it’s even worse when they wind up being perfectly functional retreads whose slick, polished veneer only serves to mask a disheartening refusal to separate itself from the previous attempt. Rather than tackle Stephen King’s original novel from a new angle, Kimberly Peirce and company are content to simply redo De Palma’s original adaptation here. Instead of reconfirming the power of King's story, they’ve merely reconfirmed that De Palma nailed it the first time, so they've simply used it as a blueprint.
While Peirce doesn’t copy it shot-for-shot, it’s a staggeringly familiar facsimile all the same. An opening sequence does capture Carrie White’s disturbing home-birth, where her mother (Julianne Moore) rips her from her womb, and provides a brief glimmer of hope that this film will actually depart from De Palma’s. But, as it turns out, it seems to be more inspired by the feeling that we have to witness every inch of a character’s origin these days, including their gross, amniotic-soaked birth; soon enough, we’re shuttled right to the infamous opening of the first film, where Carrie (Chloe Moretz) is an awkward high school student who has incurred the wrath of a pack of mean girls led by Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday). An embarrassing locker room incident sets in motion a chain of events that includes Carrie discovering latent telekinetic powers, clashing with her fundamentalist mother, and receiving an unexpected prom invite from the most popular boy at school (Ansel Elgort).
But unlike De Palma’s film, this one seems remarkably disinterested in all of the stuff and is merely in a hurry to go to the prom and blow its big, gory load. At this point, the film’s climax is so familiar that it’s a selling point (though this was also the case even back in 1976, when the film was promoted on the back of a blood-stained Sissy Spacek), and it almost feels like this latest effort would justify itself if its inevitable carnage were as awesome as the film believes it is. You can almost sense that everyone involved approached this like old-school exploitation promoters in an attempt to show off a gory highlight reel, only they forgot to bring the goods. The nearly 40 year distance between this and the De Palma film has merely gifted Carrie the ability to fly and massacre her classmates with distracting CGI effects.
Peirce is able to go a little bit bigger than De Palma did since advancements in effects have made it easier to do more than simply flip a car over, so this one features a huge, explosive climax after one of Carrie’s victims has their face pulled through a windshield. De Palma took a schlock-filled approach, too, of course, but something about this version feels a little too exploitative, as if we’re supposed to revel in the comeuppance rather than be horrified by it. Such an approach is at odds with our evolved awareness of issues like bullying, child abuse, and even religious fundamentalism; Carrie should always be a disturbing, tragic coming-of-age story about a girl who falls victim to all of these before unwittingly becoming a monster who engulfs dozens of her peers in flames (or, as King imagined it, nearly an entire town). It should incite righteous indignation, not blood-spattered awe.
Very little of that registers here, as the film is too breezy and paint-by-numbers to delve into what makes King’s characters compelling in the first place. Watching the film, I was taken aback by its rapid pace and its insistence on coasting on the audience’s familiarity—it’s almost as if it assumes everyone’s already seen this before, so why bother doing anything but the bare minimum in terms of characterization? It’s the Cliff’s Notes version of Carrie that relies on shorthand and broad strokes: Carrie’s weird, her mother’s a strung-out psycho, Sue Snell’s (Gabriella Wilde) the sweet, repentant girl, Chris is an insufferable, manipulative little shit, etc. None are especially fleshed out, though, so it never feels like this is anyone’s story in particular but merely a series of preordained events in which they participate. When it arrives at its inevitable conclusion, it’s perhaps tangentially sad because it’s tough not to conjure up some sympathy for Carrie White (though that perhaps speaks more to how well King sketched her in the first place).
To the film’s credit, it is well-cast, and Moretz does her part in making Carrie feel authentic, even if she doesn’t nearly strike you as the type of girl who you’d expect to find in the role. However, she (and the wardrobe department) convincingly transforms her into an awkward, disconnected teenager who simply wants to fit in, and, if nothing else, Carrie is finally brought to life by an age-appropriate actress. Moore doesn’t disappoint as Margaret White, but her sparse screen-time robs her of her potency; she’s arguably the most compelling character in King’s novel, but she’s reduced to a two-note schizoid psychopath here.
The rest of the high school cast is also filled out well: Wilde is treads the line between genuine sweetness and disingenuousness, so you can understand why Carrie would be wary of her plan to set her up with boyfriend Tommy Ross. Doubleday is a highlight as Chris in the sense that you really want her to get what’s coming to her, but stirring up such bloodlust is (again) a little anathema to the story. On the other end of the spectrum is Judy Greer as Miss Desjardin, Carrie’s protective gym teacher, and hers is a similarly serviceable performance since you do want to see this kind woman spared. It’s just disappointing that actual humanity feels so sparse, as most of these characters just feel like well-acted clichés to fuel the script, so you’re left with a well-performed retread of a movie that was already spectacularly performed in 1976.
That it comes from Peirce, who helmed the stunning and haunting Boys Don’t Cry, is especially disappointing; her hiring was an early indication that MGM wasn’t looking to simply photocopy the original film since pairing her with this material feels like such an inspired match. Instead, that’s exactly what we have here: a flavorless retread with little style besides a fresh coat of paint that transports De Palma’s film to the iPhone generation (if nothing else, it would have been intriguing to see a uniquely cyberbullying take on the material, but even this is incidental fluff). Using De Palma as the launching point is befuddling in the first place; while his film is a masterpiece, it’s hardly a definitive adaptation of King’s novel, which has found itself consistently truncated when translated to the big screen.
Not only does this film again omit details surrounding Carrie’s childhood, but it also doesn’t capture the scope and scale of the original novel, which was actually a pastiche, a semi-epistolary work that pieced together the Black Prom incident (which went on to become one of America’s most infamous disasters) over a decade after it occurred. Capturing this structure might have been difficult, but even a failed attempt at doing so would have been more fascinating than simply going the safe route. Admittedly, the familiarity here is only a hindrance for those who have actually seen the original, but I can’t imagine a situation where I’d ever revisit this one before De Palma’s. Usually, I find it only fair to consider remakes in a vacuum separate of their baggage, but Carrie makes it tough to do so when it’s constantly providing reminders that it’s been done better before. Rent it!
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