Like most cautionary tales, it's a "beware of the Other" story, but one that messes with one's perception of who the Other is and what it is that they do. Carrie White's telekinesis works as both a means of deliverance for those who suffer daily and a safety valve for those who delight in cruelty. Regardless of which side you're on, when push comes to shove, telekinesis will even the playing field.
The weird thing about the Carrie archetype is that even those who were the social oppressors in high school can find some degree of empathy with Carrie White. It's an earlier version of the phenomenon that saw people who were the Heathers of their school grow to love a film that is quite openly criticizing them.
Brian De Palma's 1976 film of Carrie is still widely held as a classic, and rightly so. It's a nonstop parade of sex, violence, and setpieces that so influenced the visual and narrative grammar of horror that you can trace its DNA throughout horror cinema going up through the late '80s. It had peekaboo tendencies with women's bodies, but it was the 1970s, when such a thing was to be expected.
But while it has been absorbed into our cultural DNA, it's not the only way to tell the story. There was a sequel/remake in 1999 (Katt Shea's The Rage: Carrie 2, which has some good moments and a great central performance); a made-for-TV take that aimed to launch a television series (which has an interesting, almost avant-garde structure but still doesn't tap into the true horror of the situation); a bunch of ripoffs/derivations of varying degrees of quality (some personal favorites include Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II, Jennifer, and Argento's Phenomena); a 1988 Broadway musical that went for abstract Greek tragedy and state-of-the-art spectacle; and a 2012 revision of that musical which stripped things down, aiming for a more realistic high school milieu. Each one taps into something about that sad story and explores it, and I love them all. Carrie is a Greek tragedy, a Shakespearean horror show that will always be part of human storytelling.
So now, for the first time, we get a woman's take on the original source material. Director Kimberly Peirce is an inspired choice, having made an exceptional debut with another tale of alienation and tragedy, Boys Don't Cry, back in 1999. It's insane that it has taken this long, when you consider how many interesting roles for women this story offers. It has only two moderately important male characters: good boy/martyr Tommy Ross, and bad boy/psychopath Billy Nolan.
Other than them, you have an entire moral universe delineated by women. And in Peirce's hands, you have a film that means to explore promising threads that have been minimized, altered, or ignored in past adaptations — more of the homeward walk, Margaret's job at the dry cleaners, the back-and-forth between the principal, gym teacher Ms. DesJardins, and Mr. Hargesen. (There's a certain kind of social shorthand going on in how violation of privacy on YouTube is the new "in loco parentis.")
In the grand opera of the musical's mother/daughter duets, in the Kabuki passion play of De Palma's authoritarian standoffs, the interplay between Carrie and Margaret formed the story's foundation. Here, as portrayed by Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, their interactions take on a different cast.
From the beginning, the dynamic is changed. Moretz' Carrie is a voracious learner who reads the Bible on her own, not just accepting the Scripture her mother doles out as support for her conception of discipline. The first direct conflict between them is a microcosm of the battle raging in modern Christianity, with Moore's Margaret preaching hellfire, misogyny and damnation while Carrie speaks of love, forgiveness and ecumenicism, rightfully pointing out that much of Margaret's text doesn't even come from the Bible. That's when Margaret gets violent.
This makes Carrie's post-prom homecoming even more tragic — because she now believes her mother's fucked-up worldview is right. In one of screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's restorations of aspects of the original novel excised from previous adaptations, she even brings down a rain of stones, "as one must do to a witch." Moretz' Carrie from the beginning of the film is bristling for independence, and this decision seems twofold — 1) because modern audiences cannot accept a lead character completely beaten down, and 2) her onscreen body of work requires it. She has a certain toughness that makes it hard to see her as completely vulnerable, but after the promocalypse, she does an exceptional job of bringing across the desolation that comes from feeling that your instincts have all let you down. There's a dejection in her homecoming that hits hard.
And Moore, as Margaret, wth her Grace Coddington-meets-Elsa Lanchester wig, is remarkable. This is a divergent path from her coked-up Boogie Nights “Will you be my Mom” scene. Her Margaret White is allowed something no other portrayal of the character has been allowed: an inner life. There's a steely insanity that encompasses a great deal of diagnoses with her Margaret White. She's a mortifier, a manic-depressive religious fanatic, and a woman whose postpartum issues provide the engine that sets the new film in motion.
Moore's Margaret also has a palpable tenderness, unlike Piper Laurie's legendary Mack-truck-in-a-frock from the De Palma film. But it's subsumed by her destructive mania — and if she can't let it radiate out, she turns it on herself. Laurie's assaults on herself always seemed like manipulations to keep Carrie in line, whereas Moore's cuttings and bludgeonings seem like an actual disorder. On the continuum of Margaret White crazy, with Marin Mazzie from the 2012 musical as "home-schooler with a secret" and Piper Laurie as "call Child Protective Services right now," I'd slate Moore's Margaret as less intense than Betty Buckley's 1988 Margaret from the original musical production, but definitely more dangerous than Patricia Clarkson's in the 2002 made-for-TV version.
And if home is a place of dysfunction and abuse, then what is school? You have the always delightful Judy Greer stepping into the Betty Buckley/Darlene Love role of the sympathetic gym teacher, and she brings her A-game, channeling authority and decency in a way that isn't easy to do. Likewise, the great Barry Shabaka Henley makes his two scenes as the principal/preserver of balance memorable. The assorted students aren't allowed much in the way of differentiation, and that's one place where the new film stumbles.
But that may well be a conscious choice. The one time we're allowed inside a classroom, what we see is pretty terrifying. The rest of the class is dismissive/disdainful/incapable of being quiet and listening for the time it takes to make a class presentation. It's a class full of vapid squawkers hellbent on not listening or learning, who are so devoid of empathy or consciousness that they don't even make the connection that someone they'd reduced to an abstraction was actually speaking.
So when Ansel Elgort's Tommy Ross addresses the specifics of Carrie's poetry selection (recognizing it as something as said by the Biblical Samson), it seems like he's the only person paying attention and recognizing the intense pressure at work within her. The teacher's sloppy attack on the "intensity" of the poem is just as disheartening as the class's indifference — evaluation by tone and not by content, sweeping, cutting phrases devoid of thought or context.
Elgort's Tommy Ross is allowed a complexity and personality here that the character only previously had in the 2012 musical revision. It adds a great deal to the proceedings. For the film to have Sue be pregnant with Tommy's child at the closing is a remarkable touch — not just because it adds even greater trauma to the event for Sue, but also because it shows that alpha bad girl Chris Hargesen really didn't know her well at all.
This new Carrie is rooted in the female reproductive cycle and the bodies of women from the second shot — not the tracking shot that catalogues naked torsos in De Palma's version, but the bloody birth that sets up the whole story. There's that moment, in all versions of the story, when Carrie comes home after her first period tears her world apart, and Margaret says, “You're a woman now.”
But in this new film, that phrase isn't a simple cue for one of Margaret's assaults to begin. The shot in the trailer that lets us know we're in for something more symbolically charged is Carrie's fracturing of the prayer closet door, leaving a vaginal crevice through which eldritch power pulses. That moment charges the rest of the film as well, changing the visual dynamic of the White kitchen forever. Margaret eventually must "birth" herself through the door, much as she does her daughter in the film's prologue.
There's a great, almost throwaway moment when Carrie shatters a mirror then reassembles its pieces in a way that changes her appearance, and smiles. The conception of Carrie's ability in this film has been controversial, with some saying she's basically got some undefined superhero gift. But rather than the kinetic brute force of the De Palma film, there's something else going on — something subtler that can be focused and compressed in a way we've never seen with the character. The CGI used (constantly) to demonstrate Carrie's powers lends the movie an impressionistic touch, recalling the weird, elliptical effects of the 1988 musical. (Side note: People who talk shit about the musical(s) either don't know them or tend to be haters of musical theater. If nothing else, the revised 2012 version has caught on with a new generation in a way that none of the post-De Palma adaptations has — including, alas, this one, judging by the box office.)
Peirce dutifully employs the visual grammar that young audiences theoretically respond to, but it wasn't necessary. She has a sensitive touch, and one wishes that the higher-ups had just left her alone to examine a life lived on the edge of cruelty, as she did masterfully in Boys Don't Cry. But the flawed complexity of her Carrie haunts and provokes in a way that De Palma's didn't, because it simply couldn't have. De Palma's film is from the point of view of a wrathful and vengeful god, and that god is Brian De Palma — the camera tells the story. In Peirce's film, the flaws are part of the human touch, of being unable to distance from or rise above the material. Like her heroine, she thrashes helplessly towards chaos, entropy, and the sad victory of human malice.