“They laughed at me.”
It’s possibly the most heartbreaking line in movie history, a wail of despair from a bullied, persecuted, utterly friendless soul who has just brought the walls of Jericho tumbling down. It’s the cry of Carrie White – and by extension every outcast who ever felt the sting of casual cruelty. In her, Stephen King created the ultimate victim, then handed her a hydrogen bomb and pointed it at the sneering cretins of the world. Carrie turned him into a household name, but it took Brian De Palma (with a lot of help from Sissy Spacek) to really, truly capture what it was all about. The constant terror. The powerless wards against blows that could fall at any time. The tearful hand held out for someone – anyone – to show a little kindness and the smoldering fury left behind when no one does.
It was perfect, as perfect a horror film as you could find, which is part of why this new version fails almost as soon as it leaves the gate. It couldn’t possibly match its predecessor, or even come close. But with a little more insight, it might have at least found few new things to say about the story. You can see them hovering around the edges, with helicoptering parents and humiliations shared with the world on YouTube. But director Kimberly Peirce can’t find anywhere to go with her new concepts, and clings to the old ones too closely to break out of De Palma shadow. Too many scenes stick to close to his. Too many conversations are repeated too closely. And while Peirce clearly understands the material, she can’t find the painful sympathy necessary to convey its message.
It really comes down to who the creators identify with. King himself always claimed he was Susan Snell (played here by Gabriella Wilde): the well-meaning bystander who regrets her part in Carrie’s pain and tries to make amends. Peirce gravitates towards Coach Desjardin (Judy Greer), another sympathetic figure who works to protect Carrie from her peers to no avail. They both see the story one step removed. Only De Palma latched on to Carrie herself, displaying her tearful existence for all of us to see and daring us to look aside.
Here, we just don’t get that close. Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a little too self-assured to sell us on such sorrow. There’s too much Hit Girl in her, and while we can buy her status as an outsider (Moretz is way too good to drop that ball), we can’t sense her as the pariah she needs to be. As it stands we get a technically superb performance that Peirce simply can’t guide to the requisite heart.
The story unfolds exactly as the first one did, starting with Carrie’s humiliating first menstrual cycle and travelling through various attempts to right that wrong until it all goes pear-shaped at the senior prom. It knows each step and follows them diligently, but the little changes fail to distinguish themselves and the necessary emotion simply doesn’t exist. Peirce loses her nerve with distressing regularity, pulling her punches when she should be going for the throat. This is an R-rated film and yet it feels very PG-13; God forbid they do something daring at the cost of a few teenage dollars.
Take, for example, Carrie’s chief tormentor Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday), she of the infamous bucket of pig’s blood. Here, she hesitates in her barbs from time to time, goaded by her boyfriend Billy (Alex Russell) rather than being the ultimate mean girl she’s really supposed to be. Peirce is going for well-roundedness, but it ends up letting Chris off the hook a little bit. Bullies never dwell on their bullying; they just cast their victims aside and move on to whatever pain their own life holds. Peirce misses that here, and it proves a fatal decision. Carrie suffers from a number of similar issues, from the pro forma recreation of De Palma’s iconic images to a climax that loses the apocalyptic tragedy it desperately needs.
It’s still an interesting film from time to time, mostly thanks to Julianne Moore playing Carrie’s mom. She’s no less crazy than the Piper Laurie version, but she downplays it by showing us a woman almost as frightened of the world as her daughter. She and Moretz successfully evoke the complex relationships between parents and their children, and with her brand of fanaticism more in the public spotlight than ever, Mrs. White successfully updates herself in ways the rest of the film can’t.
Otherwise, it all elicits a giant shrug. This Carrie certainly isn’t bad; it just can’t find a reason to justify itself, neither bold enough to strike its own path nor powerful enough to match the first film. This is the third time it’s been made (four if you count the short-lived stage musical, five if you add the long-forgotten sequel), and it has never felt so irrelevant as it does here. The talent is in place, and the material’s power is undiminished. Carrie tries, but can’t find the energy to bring it to life: another bystander in a story it never quite gets.