Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Carrie

As far as remakes of Stephen King movies that nobody was clamoring for, Carrie (2013) could have been worse. It's not good, but it's not terrible. Despite a few changes to some details and some minor additions, nothing is really done to distinguish this take from Brian De Palma's original version. It's an update that doesn't update much.

The remake hits the same points as the original. Carrie White (now played by Chloe Grace Moretz) is the much abused, telekinetic girl with a radically Christian mother Margaret (Julianne Moore). Classmate Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), feeling guilty over her cruelty toward Carrie, convinces her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Egort) to take her to the prom. Meanwhile, a cruel prank planned by Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) and her boyfriend Billy (Alex Russell) involving pig's blood causes Carrie to snap and exact a terrible vengeance with her powers.

Let's start with the positives. The actors playing the high school students actually look like teenagers and not 20-somethings playing teens like in the original. The screenplay includes some updates such as cellphone video footage and cyberbullying (Chris creates a fake web profile that mocks Carrie for her first period in the gym locker room). The relationship between Carrie and her mother is a bit more nuanced; Margaret is only overblown on occasion, and the two have some quiet moments and attempted tender, and their relationship has more give and take and is not just a cartoon monster dominating our innocent heroine. We also get to meet Chris' father, who threatens a lawsuit if his "good girl" is suspended and barred from attending prom, giving us a hint of the spoiled, consequence-free upbringing she's had that made her the cruel person she is.

Sadly, these nice touches are mostly for an effort that really doesn't add up to much. I'm not a big fan of the original Carrie, but even I'll admit it has more energy, impact, and edginess than this. True, the young actors might look the appropriate age, but they're bland and not memorable in the slightest. In the original, the characters were one-dimensional stereotypes, but they were enlivened by the performers, even if they were hard to take seriously; these new actors just aren't as charismatic as Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, or John Travolta. The set pieces in the original - Margaret forcing Carrie into the closet, the menstruation in the locker room, the breaking of the mirror, the prom - are revisited but not in any way that makes them comparable to the original or even able to stand out in their own way.

Take the prom scene. De Palma used extensive slow motion, a spinning camera, and split screen to tell the story visually. It feels dream-like, and the use of split-screen, showing Carrie's unblinking eyes and the effects of her powers, was unusually effective and intense. Here, director Kimberly Peirce doesn't use any inventive cinematic techniques, instead counting on the special effects, which are now bigger and bolder, to carry the scene, and it's not as effective.

Which brings me to my main criticism: the role of Carrie. In my opinion, the difference between a good performance and a great performance is this: with a good performance, you're still aware that it's a performance, and with a great performance, you forget about the actor and only think of the character. Sissy Spacek carries the original film; she was Carrie White, so convincingly fragile, vulnerable, and yet endearing. When she finally stood up to her mother, it felt like she was finally coming out a suffocating shell for the first time. It was heartbreaking when things played out the way they did. When she burns down her prom and strikes back at her tormentors, she stands ramrod straight, occasionally cocking her head, her eyes open wide. Ironically, she seemed helpless as a horrible power flowed through her and manifested in this horrible way.


Meanwhile, Moretz, a promising young genre actor of recent years, gesticulates wildly, throws her arms around, and lets all the fury and bloodlust show on her face during the remake's prom; she's made to act almost like an avenging witch, and again, I don't want to belabor the point, but it's not as effective. Moretz's Carrie is a character I'm always aware has an actor behind her; the wallflower meekness, pain, and fear aren't as convincing. She's just too pretty, too determined, and too strong as Carrie.

Despite the minor details I mentioned about websites and cellphones, not much else about Carrie has been updated. Considering we live in a post-Columbine world, the world of King's novel feels old-fashioned - i.e. that missing prom is the worst thing that can happen to a high school girl - and this adaptation feels tame. The characters and scenarios are still cartoons, and the story doesn't tap into the anxieties and fears we have today about schools and students. Peirce previously directed Boys Don't Cry, about the life and murder of Brandon Teena, and that film dealt so intensely and honestly about the plight of an outsider who doesn't fit in with society and the cruelty of that person's tormentors, so I was intrigued when she was announced as the director of this remake. The result is just the latest project of the Stephen King brand.

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