Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review - Carrie (2013)

Kimberly Peirce's Carrie is the latest adaptation of Stephen King's 1974 novel of the same name. Between television, Broadway, and film, Carrie is one of King's most often adapted works, including the critically acclaimed 1976 film adaptation by Brian De Palma. Peirce's film uses the same structure and some of the same dialogue (taken from King's novel) as De Palma's, so anyone going in expecting drastically different events to unfold is in for a disappointment. Very few entirely new scenes are added in this version, though some are presented in notably different ways. That said, there are a lot of more subtle changes, especially in its acting, that make Peirce's Carrie its own film.

Note: This is a revision of an article originally published on October 21, 2013. On seeing the film a second time and discussing it further with my wife, who had really good insight into its treatment of the girls as well as one of its big pop culture connections, my opinion on it has improved.

Carrie is a coming of age story in which the titular lead, Carrie White (Chloƫ Grace Moretz), begins exhibiting psychic powers during her late-onset puberty. She experiences her first period after gym class in her senior year of high school, breaking down in fear and confusion before being mocked and abused, and in the new version recorded on an iPhone, by her schoolmates. Previously home-schooled by her abusive, religiously obsessive mother (Julianne Moore), Carrie has no understanding of the changes happening within her body, both sexual and metaphysical. Her social awkwardness and late-blooming make her an easy target for bullying, and it's at the height of this torment that Carrie's telekinesis first awakens, blowing out a nearby light.

During her initial bullying, Carrie finds two sympathetic ears: Her gym teacher, Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), and classmate Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), who initially joins in with the torment before realizing just how horrible what's happening is. Desjardin spends much of the film comforting Carrie and disciplining her bullies, providing a kinder mother figure than Carrie has previously known. Sue, wrecked with guilt, convinces her boyfriend, Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort), to take Carrie to prom in order to make her feel normal and try to fix the pain she and her classmates caused. Lead bully Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) plots revenge after getting in trouble for what she did, leading to an eruption of violence that stands, in De Palma's original version, as one of the most famous scenes in horror film history.

From here on, there are major, unmarked spoilers throughout, so avoid reading further if you want to go in completely fresh and have no knowledge of the original film. If you've already seen the De Palma film, you've already been spoiled, and this is a film reliant more on atmosphere and tension building than twists anyway.

There are no fundamental changes to the plot between De Palma's film and Peirce's, but there's more to a film than just its plot. In Carrie's case, Moretz's acting and Peirce's directing, which isn't as strong or as drenched in slow dread as De Palma's, creates a different Carrie White than expected. Sissy Spacek's 1976 portrayal of Carrie White showed a girl so beaten down by her mother's abuse that she appeared barely connected to reality, with little to no control over her psychic outbursts. Spacek's performance is wonderfully haunting and incredibly sad, while Moretz's captures a more angry, resentful Carrie more fully aware of her world. At the same time, the new Carrie actually gets more moments of happiness too. I think both are solid, memorable takes on the character. Moretz gives the film's standout performance, cycling from embarrassment to amazement to fear to socially awkward laughter in a completely believable way.

The second most important character here is Carrie's mother, Margaret White. In De Palma's film, Margaret was played by Piper Laurie as an emphatic, powerful preacher figure haunted by her own sexual resentments and abuse. She is a mentally unstable mother resentful of her daughter's growth into womanhood, forcing Carrie to condemn all of womankind and repent for perceived sins. In Peirce's version, Julianne Moore plays Margaret as a far more unstable figure with an even deeper degree of mental illness. It's easier to feel pity for Moore's Margaret, while Laurie's is easier to see as a frightening, monstrous figure.

Margaret 1976 is able to pass for relatively normal when interacting with people other than her daughter, and only truly breaks down after Carrie forcefully disobeys her. Moore's version is out of control from the opening scene (one of the few scenes that doesn't exist in De Palma's version, and one that implies that Carrie's telekinesis existed long before puberty) and is barely able to keep herself together when interacting with another adult. Self-harm is a part of both versions of the character, but it's ratcheted up to a much, much higher and grosser level in Peirce's film. Here, Margaret is meant to inspire more sympathy than she did in 1976; she's more bluntly shown to be a victim of illness and abuse than the more theatrical evil she displayed in De Palma's film.While Laurie's take on the character is scarier and more fun to watch, Moore's is more human, even when her performance hits some very hammy points. I appreciated Peirce's attempt to humanize Margaret White, but it's not handled with as much care as her humanizing of Carrie herself.

For me, it's hard to look at a story in 2013 about a teenager with an abusive family who develops magical powers without thinking of Harry Potter. The Potter stories have become such an inescapable part of pop culture that their presence is impossible to ignore if you're going to tell this kind of story now. I feel that Peirce deliberately played into this idea with her film, using imagery audiences can readily connect between the two works. Though seemingly minor, the movement of the closet where Carrie's mother locks her away as punishment from the kitchen to under the stairs leading to the house's second floor connects Carrie and Harry. Harry and Carrie both lurk in their closets under the stairs as punishment, but these closets also serve as temporary reprieve from more active physical and verbal abuse.

Carrie's birth scene in the new film also has a strong connection to Potter's origin story, where magical powers manifest for the first time, far before puberty, in a unconscious attempt to save her own life from a monster. In Harry Potter, the monster Voldemort tries to kill a defenseless baby and is defeated by a mix of magic and The Power of Love via Harry's mother. In Carrie, Margaret White plays both of these roles, acting as both a would-be murderer and a mother who can't bear to let her infant child come to harm. This mixing of roles sums up Margaret well, and it's important that even when she does terrible things later in the film, she genuinely thinks she's helping her daughter.

The most significant additional scene in the film is one of Carrie sitting in her bedroom practicing her telekinetic abilities.Throughout the entire De Palma film, Carrie is horrified of her abilities, and uses them almost exclusively as a reflex to react to fear. She deliberately uses a psychic bolt to shatter a mirror in her bedroom, but this moment too is coated in fear. In Peirce's film, there's a scene in which Carrie is seen levitating books around her room, lifting her bed, messing with the room in general, and, in one of the few moments in the film where she does so, smiling. There are actually a couple of moments in this film where Carrie smiles while using her powers, but this one's the most blatant and significant. The new Carrie is less terrified of her powers, and more excited to deliberately use them. Also important is that this is one of the few scenes in either film where her powers are used in a major way but aren't used destructively.

There's two parts to this: First, Carrie 2013, both the character and the film, lives in a post-Harry Potter, post-Spider-Man world. While she still lives an extremely sheltered life (it's harder here to believe that a girl who uses Youtube wouldn't know about female sexuality), she still lives in a society where the wonders of magical powers area major, inescapable part of American pop culture. The ruckus she causes trying out her new powers in her bedroom immediately calls to mind Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-man film, another series heavy with its own puberty metaphors. Here Carrie appears less as a scared child and more as the star of a superhero origin story, even though things later go horribly wrong. To me this results in a very different take on the character in spite of the piles of similarities between this and De Palma's film. I personally like it as a "what would happen if Spider-man didn't have an Uncle Ben?" character study; Carrie has no strong role models, in spite of Miss Desjardin trying her best. She's a young, hurt child suddenly given great power with no sense of responsibility.

Another significant change that comes with this scene is that it normalizes Carrie's sexuality. Taking both her sexual and magical awakenings as one in the same, the film opens with Carrie utterly horrified of sexuality. She cries that her mother never told her that such frightening changes could happen and further withdraws. Later, once the initial shock wears off, Carrie goes to the library to take out books, watch videos, and then go home and practice with her new-found body. Of course what she's practicing is telekinesis and not actually sex, but taken metaphorically, it's still a masturbatory scene in which Carrie learns that actually, this new feeling isn't so bad after all. Moretz plays the scene with an almost orgasmic expression on her face in a great moment of direction by Peirce. It's a more sex-positive image of the character than the one found in De Palma's film.

All of this leads to the most fundamental change to Carrie's story, which is her performance at the infamous prom where she is once again humiliated and loses control. Carrie goes to the prom with Tommy, who, in both versions of the film, is a genuinely nice person with a good sense of humor. The two of them are rigged to win the Homecoming Crown, and during their coronation her archenemy Chris dumps a bucket of pig blood on Carrie's head (it's no coincidence that both of Carrie's humiliations involve blood.) In De Palma's version, Carrie freezes up and unleashes her psychic powers in every direction, slaughtering countless people indiscriminately while hallucinating and seeming to have completely lost touch with reality. She kills everyone nearby, friend or enemy, and walks home in a daze, nearly run over by a car driven by Chris and her boyfriend (played in the original by a very sleazy John Travolta). She reacts defensively and flings Chris's car off the road to save her own life.

With Kimberly Peirce's film, Carrie has more agency. She reacts more strongly and methodically to her abusive mother than she did in the original film and more deliberately controls her powers. As such, it's only natural that the prom scene would turn out differently. Gone is the catatonic Carrie of 1976. Like Spacek's, Moretz's Carrie initially reacts with shock and horror as the blood splashes her dress, a situation made even worse in this version when Chris has her friends on the prom committee play the video of Carrie's first humiliation on a projector for all to see. The important difference here is that instead of shutting down her humanity, Carrie 2013 embraces her anger and slaughters the specific people she perceived as having wronged her, while trying carefully to spare innocents. However, one completely innocent character (a photographer) is killed, since of course in acts of extreme violence there are always innocent victims. She moves from superhero to supervillain, acting more as a vengeful gunman, moving from place to place hungry for revenge. And in this scene, too, she seems to be enjoying herself. Like De Palma's version, she kills Chris by manipulating her car, but here, she actively hunts her down instead of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Both Carries are tragic victims of abuse, but react in such starkly different ways that it's easy for me to see them as distinct characters. The prom night massacre in the original film is pure tragedy, a broken, out of control child finally losing her last handle on sanity. The new film's massacre shows grosser, more deliberate acts of vengeance that make it a lot harder to sympathize with her. She's not just acting out of fear; she picks a fight with the person who most hates her with the intention of ending her life. Quickly horrified by what she's done, Carrie regrets and repents the fact that she let herself become so consumed by violence, and the film ends much the same as the original did, but here Carrie is a more complicated, more dangerous character. She becomes more like her mother, acting out violently against those weaker than herself with a sort of malicious glee.

Chris is an important character that I don't really feel strongly about in either Peirce or De Palma's films. She's in an abusive relationship in both versions, but there isn't a lot of focus on this part of her character. Chris and Billy continuously slap at each other both physically and verbally in the original film and feel like two genuinely awful people drawn to each other's awfulness. In the 2013 film, Chris is stated to have had regular behavior problems beyond just her interactions with Carrie, and is in a relationship whose abuse is more subtle and psychological. It's important that the prom night humiliation in the new film is planned and mostly executed by Billy rather than Chris as it was in the original version. It's in incredibly sick way for him to try to please her by helping her get "revenge" on Carrie, all while threatening her further if she doesn't follow his plan carefully. He's almost completely in control of the relationship, which in a way makes Chris lashing out at Carrie as someone weaker than herself more believable, though certainly never justifiable. Either way, Chris gets some incredibly corny, villainous lines that undermine a lot of possible sympathy for her.

There's less for me to say about the film visually, but I definitely feel that De Palma's version is a better looking film. It's drenched in richer colors, it uses soft lighting to give some moments a dreamlike quality and uses brutally harsh light to turn others into nightmares, and in general it has more interesting camera work. There's a great, split-screen shot during the original prom scene that looks very comic book, and would have worked well in the new film too. Peirce's film features fairly cheap CGI and more conventional visuals which aren't bad but don't hold up to De Palma's. Love it or hate it, the gaudy, goofy soundtrack of the original film is very memorable, and using the piercing sound cues of Psycho whenever Carrie uses her powers in the 76 version (where she also attends Bates High School) gives it a pulpy appeal. It's corny, but it's so genuine in its corniness that it's compelling, and the fact that it gives some scenes the feel of a sex ed. PSA is brilliant. The new film, on the other hand, features a very forgettable soundtrack with completely conventional sound design.

I feel that both the 1976 and 2013 films have their pros and cons. They're similar enough that if you don't want to dig too deeply they appear to be the same film, but different enough that if you do you may hate the changes made in the new one. I'm a bit mixed on some of the other changes. I think the pig killing scene in the new film is horrific and far more effective than the pitch black comedy of the original film's scene. I think making Chris more purely evil was a bad choice. I think making Sue Snell more heavily remorseful over how she helped bully Carrie was a good change. I think adding a minor pregnancy subplot to her character was unnecessary. Actually showing Carrie making her dress in the new version helps give her a further sense of agency. The tuxedo shopping scene is great in both versions. The final jump scare is terrible in both versions.

I walked out after Carrie 2013 thinking that it was a largely unnecessary movie, but thinking about it I've come to appreciate it more. A second watch definitely won me over more completely. I wish that Peirce had taken more risks with the film, because as it is, it feels very safe at times, even if it covers some darker ideas than the original film did. I would like to see what she could have done if she'd taken the film further from its source material rather than sticking to it so closely so often. There's a solid film in here under some uneven acting from its supporting cast and some occasionally bad special effects, but if you're a big fan of the original it can be hard to look beyond the close similarities. Peirce doesn't do as much as she could to comment on today's youth culture, but that doesn't seem to be her main interest here anyway. There's a huge element of examining the meanness found in teenage girls, but this isn't a "kids these days are rotten" film, it's a film about the abuse of and corruption by power. Maternal power, social power, romantic power, and magical power all play major roles in the film, and even someone as innocent as Carrie White can become enamored with brutal violence.

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