This is the third cinematic go-around for Stephen King’s telekinetic teenager—the second being a dismal 2002 NBC telefilm—and that’s not even counting the notorious 1988 musical or the only slightly less appalling 1999 sequel (“The Rage: Carrie 2”). One can cut to the chase quickly by saying that everything since Brian De Palma’s brilliant 1976 adaptation has up to now been, if not totally atrocious, basically unnecessary.
That could also be said of this new “Carrie” by Kimberly Peirce, but though it fails to measure up to the 1976 version, it has considerable virtues of its own. Peirce made an auspicious debut in 1999 with “Boys Don’t Cry,” so it’s understandable that she should have been drawn to King’s modern classic about a another young outcast treated brutally by those she tries to fit in with. And her treatment is very different from De Palma’s, which brought the director’s wickedly comic sensibility and extravagant visual panache to the material. What emotional depth his film contained—and there was a good deal—came from the extraordinary lead performance by Sissy Spacek, who gave the tormented title character a remarkable degree of inner life.
Peirce doesn’t depart much from the narrative arc of De Palma’s film—indeed, she follows the original script by Lawrence Cohen so closely that he gets primary screen credit, something he really deserves for having wrestled King’s book, which is structurally a compendium of extracts from news reports, depositions, memoirs and the like, into not only a conventional narrative but an effective one. (The alterations by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa are actually pretty minimal, mostly involving such updating as the inclusion of cell phones and YouTube postings. And when he does make a notable change—as in the final cemetery scene—the result is pretty flat.)
But Peirce’s attitude to the material is entirely unlike De Palma’s: she eschews any hint of a tongue-in-cheek approach, treating the story with a seriousness that suggests near reverence not only for King but for Cohen as well, although she and Aguirre-Sacasa do occasionally add bits from the book that Cohen didn’t use, such as a revelation about Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) at the close. And she mostly avoids visual flourishes designed to call attention to themselves, though she takes advantage of the advances in special effects to introduce scenes of Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) testing her new-found powers and jazzes up the culminating prom sequence somewhat—though not as much as one might expect. (The one exception to her restraint comes in the final confrontation between Carrie and her chief tormentors, Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan, played by Portia Doubleday and Alex Russell, which goes much farther than the original did, presumably in an effort to appeal to today’s hard-core horror movie audience.)
The result is a “Carrie” that’s faithful to the outline of De Palma’s movie but equally to the spirit of King’s book, a poignant tale of a bullied girl’s vengeance against a mother who’s herself deeply damaged and classmates who victimize her for her awkwardness and lack of social skill. Though King spiced it up with a heavy dose of fantasy wish-fulfillment, it’s a story that has even more resonance in the present, when incidents in schools are so prevalent, than it did back in 1974. Given that, Peirce’s decision to treat it earnestly is certainly defensible, and working with cinematographer Steve Yedlin, she pulls it off quite well.
The cast fit nimbly into the director’s vision. Moretz is rather too attractive to be a genuine ugly duckling—she’s more a pretty girl trying to appear to be one—but she conveys Carrie’s shyness and fear, as well as her fury toward the close, to considerable effect, while Julianne Moore, as her religion-obsessed horror of a mother, replaces the oversized, operatic approach of Piper Laurie with a degree of fragility to go along with Margaret’s fanaticism. Wilde and Doubleday do their bits as good girl and bad girl efficiently, and Ansel Elgort is a standout as Tommy Ross, the good-natured classmate who, at his girlfriend Sue’s urging, draws Carrie out of her shell and proves a genial escort to the dance until tragedy strikes. Among the other adults, Judy Greer is aces as the hard-nosed gym coach who becomes Carrie’s champion, and Barry Shabaka Henley proves an affable presence as the befuddled principal.
Audiences are far too familiar with the original “Carrie” for Peirce’s version to offer any real surprises, and indeed when it tries to do so (as in the very last scene) it stumbles. But while it will never achieve the classic status of De Palma’s take on King’s first novel, its offers a serious, respectable alternative.
But one does miss Pino Donaggio’s wonderful background music. It probably wouldn’t fit with Peirce’s more straightfoward retelling of the story, but Msrcio Beltrami’s bland contribution is no substitute.