Awash in blood and tears, a woman howls in unspeakable anguish as she gives birth in the harrowing opening moments of Carrie. She is ashen and alone, her face gnarled with fear. Believing the child to be the devil’s spawn, she grabs a pair of scissors to stab the infant to death. Only the baby’s soft mewling, the pureness of its gaze, spares it from the knife.
Director Kimberly Peirce summons up the bracing thematic subtext of her stylish remake in that deeply disturbing scene. It’s masterful filmmaking that recalls the visual economy of her debut film, Boys Don’t Cry, and her gift for psychological nuance.
The cringe-inducing opening tableau tells us that this is a tale about the cycle of birth and death, the fierce bond between mother and child, and the destiny of biology. Far from a mindless monster flick about a kid with supernatural powers, this is a movie that mines the horror of real life, from dysfunctional families to cyberbullies.
That the opening scene is by far the most chilling in the movie is both the strength of this remake and its key weakness. Peirce shines such a harsh spotlight on the twisted love between the religious-zealot mother, Margaret White (played with heart-pounding menace by Julianne Moore), and her misfit daughter Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) that the rest of Carrie’s connections to the world seem like an afterthought. Moore’s captivating performance steals some of the thunder because very little else in the picture can rival it.
While Peirce pays homage to Brian De Palma’s 1976 original by echoing many of the iconic film’s seminal moments, she diminishes the bite of the bullying that Carrie endures from her peers. That’s a pity, because it robs this bloody revenge tragedy of its visceral impact.
The indignity Carrie suffers at school is nothing compared with the daily torment she experiences in her mother’s religious torture closet.
For her part, Moretz ( Let Me In) captures the vulnerability of Carrie, a girl battered on all sides but trying desperately, futilely, to fit in.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to care about the school universe because of lackluster performances by Gabriella Wilde as good girl Sue Snell, who tries to make amends to Carrie by lending out her boyfriend, and Portia Doubleday as queen bee Chris Hargensen. Wilde is too meek and genteel to make much impact, and Doubleday lacks the steel to give Chris’ taunts any teeth. Also, the boys in this fable, Ansel Elgort as kindhearted Tommy and Alex Russell as thuggish Billy Nolan, largely fade into the background.
For all its cheesy ’70s vibe, De Palma’s movie far better captured the primal, almost Lord of the Flies nature of the high school experience, the sheer terror of being a social outcast. That’s what really gave the Carrie myth such staying power in pop culture. At its core, Carrie (which originated as a Stephen King novel) captured something painful and true about adolescence.
It doesn’t help matters that Moretz has an undeniable spunkiness, so it’s hard to shake the feeling that she could hold her own with or without telekinesis. Peirce also pumps up the blood-splattering pyrotechnics of Carrie’s powers. This is a Carrie who can split the earth beneath her with a stomp of her foot, so she always seems more in control of her sorcery and far more formidable than the fragile and delicate Sissy Spacek.
In the end, this Carrie is nobody’s victim. Like her mother, she’s a woman devoured by fury.