Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Gabriella Wilde, Portia Doubleday, Judy Greer, Alex Russell, Ansel ElgortRating: R, for bloody violence, disturbing images, blasphemy, profanity and sexual content
Strong performances aren’t enough to save this odd-duck remake
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
Sissy Spacek was 27 when she starred in 1976’s first stab at Stephen King’s “Carrie.”
Although she acted the hell out of that role — pun intended — and garnered a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her efforts, she never quite looked or “felt” the part; her residual baby-fat years were a decade behind her. The actresses playing Carrie’s tormentors, all in their mid-20s, also looked too old for their parts … but that’s how director Brian De Palma was able to get away with all the nudity in the infamous opening shower scene.
With respect to age-appropriateness, then, Chloë Grace Moretz’s presence in director Kimberly Peirce’s fresh take on “Carrie” is a step in the right direction. Indeed, a massive step: At 16, Moretz is precisely right; she exudes the soft vulnerability of a repressed little girl whose horrific upbringing has further stunted her transition to womanhood.
Moretz is terrific in the role: never better than when she displays the heartbreaking flicker of trust over Carrie’s ill-advised hope that maybe, perhaps, she’s about to be accepted by her high school peers. Moretz’s deer-in-the-headlights insecurity, at such moments, wafts off her in palpable waves; we grieve for what we know is about to come.
Adding the ghastly IED of social media to the combustible brew already present in King’s 1974 novel is the sole significant contribution scripter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa makes to this new film. Otherwise, he borrows so heavily from Lawrence D. Cohen’s 1976 screenplay — verbatim exchanges of dialogue, whole scene set-ups — that I’m frankly surprised Aguirre-Sacasa felt he deserved a paycheck.
This update isn’t a slavish, shot-by-shot remake, like Gus Van Sant’s imbecilic 1998 retread of “Psycho,” but at times it’s damn close. That begs the obvious question: Why bother seeing this new film, when De Palma’s version remains readily available … and still quite relevant, in all the significant ways?
Well, Moretz’s performance, for openers. Co-star Julianne Moore is equally riveting, as Carrie’s ghastly mother, Margaret. More subtly — and this will sound odd, given the material — Peirce’s artistic sensibilities are kinder and gentler; she makes a point of protectively cocooning Carrie when the story allows, granting us moments that allow the frightened, emotionally abused girl to show through the rage avatar she’s destined to become.
No surprise, since Peirce’s claim to fame is 1999’s still-extraordinary “Boys Don’t Cry,” which remains a template for deftly handling a very tough real-world subject.
Additionally — and I’ll acknowledge Aguirre-Sacasa’s input here, as well — this take on the story is more “fair,” in both directions, during the climactic third act. Carrie’s deadly delivery of “justice” isn’t quite as indiscriminate, and she’s allowed a better-defined sense of awareness and mercy.
Alternatively, I always thought that John Travolta and Nancy Allen met their well-deserved doom much too easily in De Palma’s version, and Peirce apparently shared my view. Things are a lot grottier this time around, and — forgive me, but it’s true — much more satisfying.
A fairly pointless prologue delivers some back-story on just how deranged Margaret White is: an unsettling scene that Moore plays with a level of creepy, persuasive authenticity that I’ve not seen since Samantha Eggar licked the blood off her own baby, in 1979’s “The Brood.” The scene’s ick factor notwithstanding, it doesn’t really explain the origins of the warped maternal instinct that later prompts Margaret to raise Carrie in a repressively smothering embrace.
So, flash-forward to Carrie’s senior year in high school, where she does her best to fade into the background, whether in class, in the hallways or during gym. The journey to her damnation begins when she unexpectedly experiences her first period in the gym shower, much to the giggling amusement of the other girls, egged on by the catty Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday). Only one girl, Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), recognizes this act of group cruelty and withdraws.
Gym coach Ms. Desjardin (Judy Greer) is furious; her subsequent punishment fits the crime. At the same time, she’s gentle with Carrie, striking an immediate bond and earning well-deserved trust. Greer shines in her scenes: a nice change from her usual overly broad sitcom roles.
Barry Shabaka Henley, on the other hand, is a one-note joke as the impotent Principal Morton: a badly conceived character who doesn’t belong in this film.
The defiant Chris, refusing to accept any responsibility for her heinous behavior, gets suspended and therefore barred from the upcoming prom. Her indignant fury percolates in the company of bad-actor boyfriend Billy Nolan (Alex Russell), and their scheme to “get back” at Carrie — who hardly deserves the additional abuse — is as horrific today as it was four decades ago.
The Chris/Billy dynamic is different, in this update. Travolta’s Billy was a clueless moron, easily led by the sexually teasing Chris; Russell’s Billy radiates genuine danger. He’s the true menace, although Doubleday’s Chris proves a willing acolyte.
Sue, her guilt mounting, seeks a way to atone for her sin; she therefore asks boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom. The idea is to give Carrie a means to regain her pride, but of course we know — as does Ms. Desjardin — that public targets are easier to hit. Tommy nonetheless goes along with this scheme, and Elgort plays him as genuinely kind and sympathetic: a truly good guy.
And, so, the players are assembled, awaiting events to come.
Moore is thoroughly chilling as the fanatically devout Margaret: a woman who has twisted scripture to her own distorted ends. Aguirre-Sacasa adds self-mutilation to Margaret’s kinks; she’s a reflexive cutter, which gets quite gruesome. Mostly, though, Margaret’s faux-pious rants are the stuff of nightmares, and Moore delivers them with Pentecostal passion.
Moretz shades her performance in a few interesting directions, the most significant of which is Carrie’s curiosity about her emerging telekinetic abilities: a talent clearly linked to her clumsy ascent to puberty. Moretz conveys a level of intelligent awareness that Spacek never quite caught (or De Palma wasn’t interested in exploiting).
But this, ultimately, typifies the major flaw in Peirce’s handling of this film. King’s novel has the sinister atmosphere of a parable that isn’t necessarily intended to represent reality; it’s a morality play that builds to a Grand Guignol climax with Old Testament-style justice. De Palma understood that, and his film has an atmosphere of slightly trashy exploitation, and is populated by exaggerated archetypes, rather than authentic characters.
De Palma also wanted to scare the willies out of us, which he absolutely did with his infamous final scene.
By trying to set these events more firmly in our actual world, and by turning Carrie more firmly into an abused girl next door, Peirce works against the tone that powers the core story. The result is more sad than scary, which may have been Peirce’s intent, but it’s also less satisfying.
This new “Carrie” may be more faithful to King’s novel — particularly with respect to Sue’s fate — but it’s less artistically successful. And that, given the powerhouse performances from Moretz and Moore, is a true shame.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com