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 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 cyber bullies.
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 heartpounding 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. Home is the real horror here. 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. The fear that Moore’s mother engenders in her offspring will give you nightmares because it feels so much more raw and real than any of the movie’s supernatural butchery. Certainly nothing that happens at the legendary prom, not even the ritual bathing in the bucket of pig’s blood or the epic carnage than ensues, is anywhere near as terrifying as Margaret ramming her own head against the wall in penance.
For her part, Moretz captures the vulnerability of Carrie, a girl battered on all sides but trying desperately, futilely, to fit in. Dressed in mousy homemade clothes, her hair in ungainly braids, she’s an instant pariah in a teen universe ruled by the vapid and the vain. Indeed, one of the most unsettling threads Peirce weaves here is that when fanatical Margaret rants and raves about the corruption of pop culture, you fear she may not be entirely mistaken.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to care about the school universe because of lackluster performances by Gabriella Wilde as the good girl Sue Snell, who tries to make amends to Carrie by lending out her boyfriend, and Portia Doubleday as bitchy queen bee Chris Hargensen. Wilde is too meek and genteel here to make much impact, which is too bad because Peirce gives her a bigger role to play than in the original.
Doubleday looks the part of the brassy bad girl but she 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” captured something painful and true about adolescence.
It doesn’t help matters that Moretz has an undeniable spunkiness, a quality showcased in “Kick-Ass,” so it’s hard to shake the feeling that she could hold her own with or without telekinesis. For the record, Peirce also pumps up the blood-splattering pyrotechnics of Carrie’s powers.
Once she sheds her meek facade, this is a Carrie who can split the earth beneath her with a stomp of her foot.
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.
Rated R for bloody violence, disturbing images, language and some sexual content.