“Carrie,” Reviewed: Mean Girls And The Frustrated Director.

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It’s not fair to evaluate a movie in terms of the book from which it’s been adapted, or an earlier film that it has remade. Works of art should be allowed to stand on their own, and be judged first and foremost on what they have to say, and how they say it. That said, it was pretty much impossible to watch Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie and not think, Brian DePalma’s was so much better.

Carrie, of course, is the story of repressed suburban teen Carrie White, whose mom is not-so-slightly off the rails in her embrace of evangelical Christianity and whose lack of social skills has made her a pariah in the halls of her high school. What brings all this into Stephen King territory (“Carrie” was his first-ever published novel, back in 1974) is the addition of telekinetic powers: Carrie’s got ’em, doesn’t really understand ’em, and ultimately uses ’em in a big, bad way.

“Carrie” was a slim novel that told a pretty simple story, and DePalma’s 1976 adaptation (with Sissy Spacek as Carrie and Piper Laurie as her mom) embraced the elemental themes with a lurid vengeance. In remaking the story for a more modern sensibility Peirce, still best known for her emotionally devastating 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, goes in a different direction. The girls who torture Carrie in school are today known as bullies or “mean girls,” and they naturally use digital video and Facebook to heap more humiliations on their victim. Peirce’s Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz, of Kickass and Let Me In) wants to fit in more badly than did Spacek’s version; her pain is more layered, and her struggles to reconcile her home and school lives are more acutely felt.

In short, Peirce’s Carrie is an emotional drama first and a horror movie second – which would be fine if the text of King’s novel gave the filmmaker enough meat to chew on. But King wasn’t interested in telling a nuanced tale of high school angst; he wanted to scare us. DePalma got that, and built a lean, supple tale of terror, but Peirce’s Carrie seems less impressed by those elements – she wants to get inside the heads of Carrie, her mother (Julianne Moore) and the girls who abuse her in and out of class. Without a story that fully explores those ideas, however, she’s reduced to moving in for close-ups of her actors – giving us plenty of opportunities to stare deeply into their eyes and infer all the complex pain that the script never articulates.

This dissonance is felt most painfully at the climactic prom scene, where the bullies have arranged their most ambitious act of mean-spirited “revenge” against Carrie, and where all hell breaks loose when the trap is sprung. DePalma, who never met an extreme camera angle he didn’t love, shot that sequence with an articulate mix of extreme close-ups, split screens and rococo color shifts that combined to celebrate the chilling chaos of a broken mind. Peirce, by contrast, is more restrained and literal: She can’t pull away from Moretz’ anguished face, so we’re left with a flat series of medium shots that deny us the full impact of everything going on around her.

Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie isn’t bad because it’s not as good as Brian DePalma’s; rather, it’s just bad, and DePalma’s version shows us why. Peirce is an expert at getting into the minds of her characters and creating films that help us care about them. But Carrie doesn’t give her the raw materials with which to do that: It’s a lean, mean scaring machine, and one gets the impression that Peirce has little interest in that kind of art. DePalma loved Carrie for what it was; Peirce wants to turn it into something more. But a thing is what it is.

(IMAGE: Chloe Grace Moretz in Carrie. Photo courtesy of Screen Gems.)