Why remake Carrie? It’s certainly a question worth asking, especially in the ever-more crowded field of sequels, remakes, and reboots. Kimberly Peirce tries to update Carrie as a study of bullying in the internet age. But the main reason to watch this film is Julianne Moore’s harrowing take on Margaret White, Carrie’s mother.
Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel was an unsettling study of a young woman so broken by violence and humiliation that she seems inevitably driven to the film’s bloody climax. At a time when technology has increased the reach of bullying and we’ve begun prosecuting bullies whose victims kill themselves, the Carrie narrative may well be ripe for updating.
And Peirce seems genuinely interested in retelling this tale of the cycles of violence, of self-hatred manifested as violence against others. For all of its flaws, her Carrie never feels cynical. And while it suffers for its relative disinterest in the bloody prom, for the first hour, it delivers a thought-provoking story that makes us cringe in all the right places.
Peirce works closely inside the lines of De Palma’s framework, but trades De Palma’s atmospheric approach for a more narrative one, borrowing a bit more heavily from King’s novel without slavishly adhering to it.
If De Palma’s film was a study of Carrie White, Peirce’s is a study of all the women surrounding Carrie, who contribute to — or fail to halt — her downfall. Chloë Grace Moretz is the titular Carrie, a social outcast whose pretty face is hidden beneath wild hair and sack-like clothes, whose deeply religious and mentally unhinged mother (Julianne Moore) has left her so ignorant of anything potentially sinful that Carrie is terrified by the belated first appearance of her period.
When Carrie stumbles out of the shower, panicked and screeching for help, she is subjected not to sympathy, but to that infamous scene of tampon-flinging jeers, led by the terrible Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) and reluctantly accompanied by Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde). The incident earns Carrie the attentions of gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), who swiftly draws Carrie under her protection, and kicks off a sequence of events that ends with that tragic night at the prom.
In exploring that powerful central image of blood and the inner lives of the various female characters, Peirce’s Carrie actually does a significantly better job than De Palma’s in telegraphing its characters’ motivations.
Sue Snell, standing at the cusp of womanhood, worries that she isn’t a very good person and looks to punish herself and make Carrie somehow whole — but she isn’t quite as mature about it as one character points out she should be. Chris is feeling herself at the apex of her rich, hot teenage girl power, which promises to fade after she takes off her graduation cap and gown. And when that power is snatched from her prematurely, she unleashes her ire upon the most vulnerable target: Carrie. And, while it’s not a comedic role, Greer’s character-actor chops make her a perfect fit for Miss Desjardin, who has spent enough time with high school girls to understand their power dynamics and knows that sometimes a girl just needs to hear that she’s pretty.
But it’s Moore’s Margaret White who provides the most revelatory addition to the Carrie tale. Piper Laurie’s Margaret could be almost prideful in her religious fervor in the De Palma film, but Moore’s version, with her stringy hair and perpetually pursed lips, is dour and wounded. The best scenes in the film are between Moore and Moretz, where we witness the terrible nature of their relationship. Margaret loves Carrie, in her way, but cannot accept her as a young woman who exists in the world, and Carrie longs for the acceptance her mother is incapable of feeling.
We soon realize that while Margaret is a monster, she’s a truly pitiable monster. This is a woman whose every fear has come true, who despairs of the sin she sees in the world, who feels that her own sin has caused an irreparable rift in her soul, and who sees her daughter’s telekinetic abilities as proof of the devil’s influence. Margaret’s abuse of Carrie isn’t opportunistic, like Chris’ — rather, she abuses Carrie because harming her serves as an extension of Margaret’s own self-harm.
If this film had shifted to a primary study of Margaret White, it could have been a masterpiece of domestic horror. Margaret may be mentally unstable, but we can understand why she fears Carrie and her abilities. If anyone in this piece should develop telekinetic powers through sheer force of terror and will, it should be Margaret White.
Unfortunately, in this parable of hope, fear, and power, Carrie herself gets a bit lost. Sissy Spacek’s Carrie was off-puttingly shy; we never get the sense that she deserves any of the abuses heaped upon her, but it’s easy to see why she has no friends. She’s been deeply damaged by the cruelties of home and high school, with a narrow window left for repair.
In interviews, Peirce has made it clear that she wanted Moretz’s Carrie to be a point-of-view character, an ordinary girl aside from her extraordinary home life. The moral is clear: Any of us could be Carrie, and there but for the grace of Stephen King go we. It also holds Carrie up as a perverse mirror to Chris Hargensen. Chris is a powerful girl who fears losing her power, while Carrie is a powerless girl who revels violently when power comes to her.
This is a change that’s well meant, but undermines the thesis of Peirce’s film. It feels disingenuous to portray Carrie as a girl pushed and prodded until she snaps, without first showing us how badly bent she is.
Moretz’s Carrie is mistrusting, and placing the 16-year-old actress next to the 20-something actors cast as her fellow high school seniors helps to make her seem more childlike. But the Carrie who attempts to reason (rather than plead) through her mother’s madness doesn’t seem like the same girl desperate enough to snap wood with her mind.
Certainly, even a girl with the appearance of inner strength might slaughter her classmates given the right set of circumstances, but Sissy Spacek’s Carrie felt like a force of nature unleashed by a kaleidoscope crack in her brain; Moretz’s feels like a kid with superpowers playing a bloody game. Peirce claimed that we needed to like Carrie, so we could feel the visceral buildup and disappointment of prom, but I disagree. Asking those among us who have not experienced the horrors of bullying and abuse to put ourselves in Carrie’s surprisingly steely shoes, actually makes her violent actions less sympathetic. We don’t have to like Carrie in order to root for her; we just need to feel that she’s been treated unjustly. And Spacek’s wonderfully awkward portrayal of Carrie forced us to ask ourselves, “Really, how would I have behaved toward Carrie White? Even if I wasn’t a Chris Hargensen, might I be one of the girls laughing on the sidelines, or like Sue Snell, wanting to be good but unwilling to make a personal connection?”
Of course, the key setpiece of Carrie, the reason that the 1976 film wore out so many VHS tapes during so many late-night viewings, is the prom. All that cathartic gore was well suited to De Palma’s Carrie, but it’s not really the narrative heart of Peirce’s film; it’s more like a quick stab to the liver before moving on to movie’s true climax.
Peirce might have made up for skimping on the lurid death sequences by continuing the uncomfortable exploration of violence and fear that got the movie started so swimmingly. But Peirce tries to deliver a more optimistic tale, a glimmer of hope that comes from neither De Palma nor King. The moral, it seems, is that Carrie is a cycle that we don’t need to continually repeat (even if we’re still remaking this movie).
But whatever violence Carrie enacts against her town, or whatever message might come out of it, is less compelling than the violence that binds her to her mother. By the end of the film, we’re less concerned about whether Carrie White is burning in hell than we are about whether Margaret White is there beside her, stroking her hair.