The third cinematic adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie screened after WW press deadlines. AP Kryza thinks it could have used even more time in the cooker.
Kimberly Peirce's new take on Stephen King's seminal high-school tale Carrie is gorgeously shot, capably acted and appropriately gruesome—all essential elements in an effective retelling of a story so ingrained in the American horror mindset it's basically canon. But it also manages the dubious tasks of being at once horrifically redundant, lazy and irresponsible in its inability to fit itself into the modern landscape, one that could desperately use a more thoughtful rethinking of the story of a bullied high-school outcast who is at once the victim of society and a force of brutally misplaced vengeance.
Naturally, if you're one of the few uninitiated with King's 1974 debut and Brian DePalma's 1976 film adaptation, spoilers will follow, as it's impossible to touch this plot without massive spoilers. In fact, if you're lucky enough to know nothing whatsoever about it, by all means head to this with a blank slate and try to ignore the snickering of the knowing audience when the words "dirty pillows" make their first appearance.
DePalma's original film is not exactly the untouchable (pun fully intended) piece of horror many perceive it to be. The story of tortured, shy Carrie White is one that could take place at any time. DePalma's film, as most of his works are, became instantly dated due to the presence of John Travolta as a sadistic mook, its giallo lighting and its incessant split-screen effects. It is a good horror film, but between Piper Laurie's epic scenery chewing and its oft-overlooked campiness, it's easy to laugh at a story that is really no laughing matter. Still, it remains a great examination of adolescent cruelty and the retribution it evokes. It is a revenge film steeped in tragedy. It remains a stark and disturbing portrait of religious fanaticism, angst, panic and horror.
Peirce's Carrie exists in a very different landscape than King's novel and DePalma's film, and that makes 2013 Carrie a very different beast. We exist now in a post-Columbine world, one where the conversation about bullying permeates our cultural consciousness—and one where school shootings are such a part of our daily news cycle that we've almost become numb to their existence. Religious fanaticism has become a worldwide fear. The plight of the everyday student is a powder keg.
So we arrive at a modernized version of Carrie White, here played with finesse by Chloe Grace Moretz with a wounded frailty that belies her physical beauty. The beats are all the same—Carrie lives with an abusive mother (a solid-as-always Julianne Moore), is bullied at school and, in an act of benevolent pity, is whisked off to prom by the super-stud boyfriend of a fellow student racked with guilt over pelting the poor girl with tampons after she got her first period.
It's nearly impossible not to look at Carrie White as a reflection of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, or Seung-Hui Cho—troubled, bullied students whose anguish translated into unspeakable horror as they unleashed their rage, leaving trails of innocent students in their wake.
And it's in this respect that Peirce's lack of nuance and inability to reinterpret her source material becomes troubling. In essentially recreating DePalma's work—minus the split-screens and plus the addition of Facebook and the weirdest episode of I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant imaginable—Peirce misses an opportunity to really say something about Carrie's story. It is a faithful retelling of the tale, to be sure, but this needs to be something beyond a tragic revenge fantasy. Peirce—who, it's important to note, gave us one of cinema's most tragic and heartfelt portraits of victimization with Boys Don't Cry—just goes through the beats of DePalma's film and does little to bring its underlying themes into focus.
Carrie is not, nor has it ever been, a cut-and-dry story of an abused misfit who exacts revenge on those who wronged her. It is a story about the horrors of adolescence. It's about a young girl who never had a chance. It's about a young woman swallowed by the guilt of wronging the meek. It is about bullying, redemption, misunderstanding and the horrors of a world where, in order to fit in, you're all but required to prey on the weak. It's a dense, complex and timeless subject that demands revisiting. (It should also be noted that I absolutely loathe Stephen King's work and consider Carrie a brilliant piece of writing.)
It is not, however, a revenge fantasy, and that's basically what Peirce presents. When that pig's blood soaks its titular character, we're prompted to cheer her on as she lays waste to teachers and students, who are crushed, burned and eviscerated with a glee that belongs in a slasher film, not in a parable about the consequences of cruelty and the malice that seems perpetually engrained in youth culture. When Carrie's rage comes pounding down on her nemeses, we're shown their suffering in extreme closeup and stylized, Matrix-style slow-motion and invited to cheer. We're supposed to relish in the deaths of these children because they deserved it, which is wildly beside the point. No greater context is offered, and that's a bloody shame. It's We Need to Talk About Kevin repurposed as a rollicking revenge flick, as if Klebold and Harris were given their own action movie that considers the consequences of their actions as an afterthought, instead relishing in the horrors they wrought.
That's not to say that the film is without merit. Moretz continues to impress in complex roles, and Moore offers a subdued and terrifying religious fanaticism that lodges under the skin. Peirce rushes it all to the iconic prom massacre, failing to consider that the film's core isn't just a grisly action setpiece, but a portrait of adolescent suffering that spider-veins into every facet of the torturous high school life that breeds hostility from the get-go.
Carrie White's is a rare story that evolves with the times while allowing the character's plight to remain timeless. That Peirce, of all filmmakers, remains grounded in reverence without exploring the implications of all the characters' actions—from its titular victim/monster to its bullies—is irresponsible and lazy. We're asked to celebrate a mass murder rather than contemplate its consequences. It is a film populated with victims that refuses to transcend beyond black-and-white villainy, a work so steeped in reverence to an antiquated horror film it forgets that modernizing such a tale requires a little more than advanced special effects.
Re-cast Carrie with two troubled goth kids, and you've got a disturbing look at the causality and casualty of school bullying. Instead, Peirce has crafted a film that openly invites you to celebrate a school massacre as an act of righteous vengeance. Carrie White and her victims deserve better. So do we.