Friday, October 18, 2013

Hurt People Hurt People: CARRIE

Stephen King’s novel Carrie and the 1976 Brian De Palma film based on it are not particularly frightening examples of the horror genre.  Emphasis is on something more emotionally upsetting than surface scare. They have blunt force pulp power, bludgeoning and disturbing. What makes them something approaching classic is that truly distressing and upsetting material comes well before an ostracized teenage girl has a nasty prank pulled on her at prom and finally snaps in a frenzy of telekinetic fury. No, what’s upsetting about Carrie is the all-too-real horror of everyday cruelty. She’s a girl who is abused at home by a tyrannically religious mother who preaches a twisted gospel of self-loathing and shame, bullied at school by packs of mean girls and boys who perpetuate a cycle of trauma that is seemingly endless. When one girl snarls that Carrie’s “been asking for it since the sixth grade,” it’s hard not to wonder why this wounded young woman could ever been seen as anything other than psychologically brutalized. Sadly, compassion is something easily lost in adolescence, especially in group dynamics when one’s qualms can get swallowed up in mob mentality.

Where the new version of Carrie, a fresh adaptation scripted by Lawrence D. Cohen (he wrote the 1976 version) and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (a writer for Marvel comics as well as TV’s Glee and Big Love), goes right is in its sharp psychological eye in these early sequences of casual real-world cruelty. (Take the writers’ previous works of high school campiness, a focus on religion as familial strain, and a splash of King horror intruding on small town normality, and you have a good start on understanding this film’s approach.) Unlike De Palma’s brash showiness, with its nearly-exploitative eye for bodies on display in all their various states, this adaptation is inspired by the characters’ interiorities. Carrie, who is slowly realizing her telekinesis, is painfully shy, guarded. She’s preemptively defensive and rightfully so. After the opening scene, in which she’s relentlessly mocked in the gym class locker room, her mother picks her up from school. Full of sickly maternal rage, she punishes Carrie, telling her if she hadn’t been sinful that wouldn’t have happened. The poor girl is abused by her peers and then comes home to further punishment. For Carrie, there is no such thing as a safe place. 

Played here by Chloe Grace Moretz, Carrie is a pretty teenage girl who hides it well. She’s restlessly wary, hunched, arms held perpetually in a cautious defensive posture in front of her body that is swimming in formless oversized clothes. Her eyes dart, ready to find the next source of pain. A smile teases across her lips as she comes to realize that she has the ability to move things with her mind, along with a tremble of worry that if anyone found out, she’d only invite more mockery. Her mother (Julianne Moore) has wild hair and tends to hurt herself, pricking her thighs with her sewing needle, clawing at her wrists with her fingernails in religious fervor. It makes sense that she thinks the only reason she has a child is because of spiritual weakness, momentary lapses of sinful behavior. She keeps her daughter in line with threats of violence and confinement. When Carrie gets up the courage to announce that a cute boy (Ansel Elgort) has invited her to prom, her mother responds by telling her not to go. When Carrie pushes back ever so slightly, her mother hits herself repeatedly.

The boy feels sorry for Carrie and has invited her upon the request of his girlfriend (Gabriella Wilde), who regrets the bullying. A far more typical response comes from the ferociously catty mean girl (Portia Doubleday) who blames the victim when bullying gets her banned from prom. “We didn’t even do anything!” she cries, completely missing the point. She, along with her scary boyfriend (Alex Russell) plans to get even, blaming Carrie for missing out on prom. The nasty act they plan – the iconic Carrie prom moment that’s about as spoilable as Psycho’s shower scene, but I’ll avoid mentioning it anyway – is what sets off the more typically horror filled finale. In it, this film, like De Palma’s, becomes bloody. But unlike De Palma’s, this is a tragedy more than a spectacle, a film about a bullied girl who finally gets the strength to lash back at her tormentors and becomes a super-bully in the process, mangling indiscriminately. Even a kindly, well-intentioned teacher (wonderfully played by Judy Greer) gets caught up in the conflagration. This is no mere revenge fantasy. It’s troubling. When the nastiest bullies get taken out in spectacular horror film kills – staged here with freshly inventive jolts and jabs – it’s not only comeuppances. It’s a lament that it has gone this far.

The director here is Kimberly Peirce. Her first two films, 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry and 2008’s Stop-Loss, were haunting dramas that end up as tragedies. They’re about late-adolescent and early-adulthood yearnings, desires, and fluid identities in the process of stabilizing brought up short by intolerance and injustice. Here, in Carrie, those intolerances and injustices do their part in forming Carrie’s identity until the time when she has the empowerment to take control – take full command of her powers, both literal and metaphorical – and seizes it with great violence and only flashes of regret. Peirce handles the interpersonal relationships tenderly and sharply, so that by the time the violence of the finale emerges, almost right out of a comic book adaptation in its splashiness, like an X-Man gone sour, it’s as sad as it is shocking. Peirce makes a sympathetic portrait that’s never a voyeuristic freak show. She looks compassionately and sadly upon the events of the story, finding notes of embarrassment, anger, shame, and pity. Without attacking the material with the same outward bite and sleaze of De Palma, Peirce has made a humane, haunting and affecting adaptation from the inside out.

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