“I like to go for the reality, I like to go for what’s underneath. I love real emotion, I love real drama.” –Kimberly Pierce
Audiences seeking a fright-filled evening will be disappointed if they flock to the theatre to see Kimberly Pierce’s largely feminist adaptation of Carrie. Pierce’s Carrie does not follow the conventions of Brian De Palma’s horror classic of the same title. His film is a true horror film. Pierce has kept scare tactics to a minimum, and through the mixing of tragic elements she has created an introspective character study of an outcast whose name will not be forgotten. I will not mention De Palma’s Carrie any longer. It will do no good. I will not answer the unfortunate and unfair question of, “Is it better than the original?” That would do Pierce’s and De Palma’s films a disservice. One must evaluate the present film and see what works and what does not.
With an R rating and sitting at 100 minutes, the story begins with the camera creeping up the bloody staircase of Margaret White’s (Julianne Moore) simplistic and modest home. She cries in agony as she gives birth to her only daughter, Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz). For some, motherhood is a beautiful and wonderful blessing. Not so with Margaret—for her, it is a burden. Her daughter was “conceived in sin” and she views Carrie as a curse, as cancer. In an attempt to shelter her daughter from the godless world around them, Margaret White will not teach Carrie about the basics of puberty and her changing body. When Carrie commits a sin, she is locked in a small closet and forced to pray. It is an extreme depiction of child abuse, and the film observes how Carrie develops her fractured self-image because of that abuse.
In the shower after gym class, Carrie begins her first period. Horrified, terrified she cries out for help from the other girls. Initially, they are disgusted and then turn it into a joke as they shower her with tampons and chant, “Plug it up, plug it up!” After this tragic scene, girls are reprimanded and the rest of the plot revolves around the upcoming senior prom, which involves a vicious prank of Carrie winning prom queen.
The film is wonderfully cast. Chloë Moretz certainly does not look like the outcast that most people would expect to see. Of course not, she’s too beautiful. This is where the brilliance of Pierce’s direction shines through. That’s precisely the point. Carrie has a fractured self-image and sees herself as worthless, ugly, and unloved. This Carrie can be physically beautiful; that is why Pierce is interested in Carrie’s internal perspective of herself. Moretz is known for her role in the Kick-Ass movies, and the idea of her as a superhero fits in well to our story. Carrie discovers she has telekinetic powers. She is fascinated by this discovery. Maybe this is something that will make her whole. Maybe this is something with which she can begin to see that she really is special. Julianne Moore’s controlled nuance also provides the audience with a layered character who demands second viewings to decipher her motives and grasp her ambiguities.
One gym class girl named Sue, provides the movie with a delicate and genuine sense of beauty. The guilt ridden Sue was present and participating in the bullying in the shower, and selflessly chooses to stay home from the prom and allow her boyfriend, Billy Nolan, to take Carrie as his date. Ms. Desjarden (Judy Greer), the gym teacher and one who truly shows kindness to Carrie, sees Sue’s move as something with malicious intent. It is not. This is selfless. It is her way of atoning for her sin of participating in the vicious attack on Carrie. This is an element that is nicely juxtaposed with Margaret’s self-mortification method of seeking atonement for her sins. In the horror that ensues at the prom I am reminded of the many tragic stories of mass-killings in American schools. I think of Columbine, Newtown, or even the theatre massacre in Aurora. Many times acts of violence such as those are a dramatization of the perpetrator’s chaotic and fractured internal turmoil within the self. One image that fascinated me was Carrie looking at her reflection in broken pieces of glass in the school bathroom. When she looks in the mirror, who does she see?
What works in this film? First of all, the film is directed by one of the more prominent, successful female directors Hollywood has seen. Pierce aims for reality. She gets it. There is real emotion and tragedy. She is interested in the female perspective. The film is rich with great roles for female characters—something Hollywood has been lacking for many years. There are disturbing parts, but they are perfectly balanced with elements of tragedy that invoke audiences’ sympathy. What doesn’t work? The film depicts the most horrifying circumstances of bullying, yet doesn’t apply our culture’s recent crack down on this behavior or the punishments this type of bullying would incur. Sadly, Judy Greer’s character is underwritten. The film is only 100 minutes long and would not have suffered from just one more scene with Ms. Desjarden and Carrie talking to one another at an intimate level. Other characters like meanest of mean girls, Chris, seem false and present only to serve as a plot device.
While the film’s climax is sensational, there are too many missteps in what came before. Carrie’s tragic downfall deserves our attention. Kimberly Pierce has tried to bring us into the mind of a misfit teen to see the world from her perspective; she has done this well. Carrie is not a perfect film, but much of it works.
What I learned from Roger Ebert is that when we sit down to watch a film we must be optimistic and open-minded. We cannot demand a movie to give us what we already expected. We cannot go into a “remake” with preconceived notions or ideas about how things are or should be. We must watch the film presently before us. Tabula Rasa, the mind is a blank slate. We have much to learn about how to watch a film.