Review: Kim Peirce’s new ‘Carrie’ only captures some of the story’s enduring power

Brian De Palma wasn’t just hired to direct the film version of Stephen King’s monstrously successful first novel “Carrie”; he collided with it, and the result basically manhandled audiences, creating iconic imagery, loaded with indelible performances. “Carrie” is not a subtle film, but it is a fairly undeniable film. It is a fever dream, overheated and overwrought and impossible to shake. De Palma’s film means it. There is nothing halfway about it, and it practically burns the edges of the screen. It runs hot from the moment it starts.

When they made a weak sequel to the film in the ’90s and when they remade the movie for television, those were easy to tune out. I think the world of Angela Bettis, and she seems like near-perfect casting for the role of Carrie White, but I didn’t even bother to see that film. I have no opinion of it beyond “I’m not sure why you’d bother.”

When they hired Kimberly Peirce to direct this version and Chloe Moretz to star, it suddenly got a lot harder to tune this one out. Add Julianne Moore as Margaret White, Carrie’s fanatic mother, and this started to look like something very interesting, a film that stood a real shot at creating its own personality and offering a very different take on what remains one of King’s most supercharged pieces of writing. Whatever the best case scenario is for this film, the reality is a movie that feels micro-managed, that is overly cautious and needlessly reverent to De Palma’s movie, and it never manages to really come to life despite some genuinely good work being thrown at the movie by people both in front of and behind the camera.

Lawrence D. Cohen shares screenplay credit on the film, and that would seem to conclusively put to bed the debate of whether this is a new adaptation of the film or a remake of De Palma’s film. Many of the creative decisions here, at least on the script level, exist either as an update of something De Palma’s film did or a reaction to it in some other way. The original film opened with Carrie’s moment of discovery in the shower after gym class, and De Palma makes it very experiential. He’s never channeled his inner high-school-girl more effectively than he did in that movie, and that opening scene really captures the shock of something major happening to your body that you aren’t prepared for. This new film opens with Margaret White “dying” in her bedroom, alone and in devastating pain. She’s convinced it’s cancer, and she braces herself for the end. One final blast of pain… and then her newborn daughter slides out onto the bed. Margaret’s profound self-denial allows her to disconnect the baby from the act that led to the baby’s birth, and she stops herself from killing the infant.

If the script is going to go back to Carrie’s birth, why not fill in some incidents from her childhood? Why not show more of the horrifying conditions that eventually result in that poor girl standing in a shower, her first period hitting the floor by her feet? Why not show us how someone ends up so profoundly socially retarded that they have no idea what is happening to them when puberty kicks in? I may love King’s book, but I certainly don’t think it’s sacred text and the only valid thing you can do is try to adapt it exactly. Carrie is a great character, and if you’re going to do a new film set now, why not try to capture the landscape the way it really is at the moment? Bullying is very different than it was in 1976, and while there may be some shared motivations, there are very different techniques. Social media is making it harder than ever for parents to pull an ostrich and pretend their kids aren’t monsters. The death of Rebecca Sedwick, for example, strikes me as an archetypical example of how this all works now. You drop a powder keg like Carrie White into that modern landscape, and things will still end in blood, but maybe not in identical fashion, and wouldn’t that be more interesting and say more about who we are right now?

Chloe Moretz does nice work as Carrie, and Julianne Moore works valiantly to turn Margaret White into more than a cartoon. I just wish that the script by Robert Aguirre-Sacasa felt more daring, that it didn’t turn the events into a sort of a theme park ride version of King’s story. While I think the actors are working hard to make this live and breathe, and I think Peirce had the right intentions, I also think they just plain missed the target. You cannot tame this story. You cannot worry about pushing too far with the material. You have to make sure we understand what it feels like to live in a house with a genuinely mentally ill person, someone whose fear of the world is used as a weapon to beat down this child. When Carrie cracks, it is important that the world she live in feel like it would be impossible to survive any other way.

I am less taken with the kids playing Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday), and Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort), although I give Peirce credit for casting kids who look like kids. In De Palma’s film, everybody looks 35, and here, they are obviously very young. As written, I just don’t buy any of it. Chris is one of those great asshole roles, and Nancy Allen deserves credit for just how brutally bitchy she was in De Palma’s films. Doubleday has been good in other films, but the film isn’t sure if she’s playing a broad and transparently crappy version of the character or if this is meant to be more grounded and real. Watch the scene where her dad shows up to yell at the school’s principal. He appears to be played by Hart Bochner as Ellis from “Die Hard,” and it’s so weirdly out of place and almost silly that it undermines anything real that Judy Greer is doing in the scene as Coach Desjardin. I don’t blame the young cast for what they’re asked to do in the film, but I think they’re all fairly bland and forgettable. I don’t buy them as being evil enough to mobilize for the big prank, even the few who are part of it. Alex Russell plays it as big as I’m sure he was asked to play it, but he doesn’t have any of the animal charisma that would make sense of the way Chris responds to him. As presented here, she swings from pampered daddy’s girl to ranting psychopath, and it never makes sense.

I like Steve Yedlin’s work normally, but “Carrie” just doesn’t work for me visually. There’s a curious flat quality to the film’s palette, and when the visual FX are used to bring Carrie’s telekinetic powers to life, they look like FX to me, every single time. I don’t want to be unkind, because I know this is not Peirce’s background as a visual artist, but there are a lot of moments here that are staged and shot like a Disney “Witch Mountain” movie. The final set piece that starts in the gym with the bucket being dumped on Carrie never really feels out of control. Like I said, I don’t really feel like “Carrie” is a horror film because so much of what happens is earned. Sure, there are plenty of innocent people who get hurt, but the highest price is paid by Carrie and by her mother, and it’s sad, not scary. The gym sequence is the one place you can really terrify the audience, especially now, by showing how that would make you feel if you were trapped in that room with what is essentially a wild animal let off the leash by its owner. Carrie’s abilities are almost independent of her, like she’s just watching it all go down. It feels so orchestrated here that there’s no danger, no chaos.

I don’t strongly dislike “Carrie,” but I am disappointed by it. There is a lot of talent in the mix, and I expected something that had more of a voice, something that stood apart from both the book and the earlier films. I have no inherent problem with new takes on material, as the interviews I did for this film would indicate, but in the end, this “Carrie” is, like the character herself, too shy and unsure, and it ends up feeling like a missed opportunity more than anything else.

“Carrie” opens tomorrow in theaters everywhere.