The new “Carrie” is not a Kimberly Peirce film.
Sure, she may have directed it. Her name appears in all its credits and marketing. To some, she’ll bear full responsibility for everything that appears on screen while others won’t give her name a second thought, they’ll only see this as another “Carrie” movie. But if we want to go full auteur theory and look for some signature theme, some trademark that says, “This film couldn’t exist without me, the creator, Kimberly Peirce,” there’s nothing. Nada. Without her name on screen, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking this film belongs to no one. “Carrie” feels like a movie made by committee — no. That’s far too personal. “Carrie” feels like a movie made inside a void.
And too many people aren’t bothering to ask why.
The quality of the remake really makes no difference. The trailers have wiped away all surprise from the plot about an abused high schooler whose first period also brings with it a slew of telekinetic powers. Does she kill everyone? But of course she does.
If you haven’t read the Stephen King novel or seen Brian de Palma’s film adaptation, the “Carrie” remake will offer you a nice SparkNotes run through the essentials, along with dry cinematography and a lugubrious air that makes it even harder to watch than the infrequent blood spurts. There are a few modern touches, like references to cyberbullying and Vampire Weekend, which ironically date the film even more. Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore can’t escape from under the shadows of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie because the film doesn’t allow them to. It hesitates between playing the drama ice-cold or indulging in the previous film’s insanity, and the result is characters that feel like nothing. They’re just weak enough and goofy enough that they cancel themselves out, and you leave the film forgetting the faces you saw.
This is the dreaded “So average, it’s meh” film, which isn’t even bad enough to warrant a strong response. Not that critics haven’t tried. The film centers around kids killing other kids at prom, so clearly, we have to think about Columbine and Sandy Hook. No, we don’t. “Carrie” doesn’t. It plays the prom massacre like a manga action scene with gesticulating limbs and maniacal sneers. Carrie goes off into her own fantasy world once the bloodshed starts, far removed from the manic-depressive reality that colored the lives of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. If you want “Carrie” to give you insight into these tragedies and their cause, you’ll come out disappointed.
Some have chalked up the film’s failure to too much lip service. The new “Carrie” is too loyal to de Palma’s film. It follows the exact same trajectory, it hits too many of the same beats. And to some extent that’s true. In narrative, yes. In tone, no, which is both good and bad, but we’re still picking at the symptoms rather than the sickness. And so I have to ask you yet again: what did they do with Kimberly Peirce?
Because the Kimberly Peirce that made “Boys Don’t Cry” would not have made this “Carrie.” Her Carrie White would not have been nothing. Like Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena, we would have entered the film with preconceptions of who she is — a victim, a psycho, a degenerate — and slowly, she’d pull us into her orbit. We’d enter her reality without prejudice and judgment. Peirce made us say Brandon Teena was a man; he just happened to have a female body. And I wanted her to tell us again that Carrie White is a human being; she just happens to have cataclysmic psychic powers.
Kimberly Peirce could have tapped into Carrie’s perspective and opened it up to the world. She wouldn’t have had to fall back on the parlor tricks that made de Palma and King’s works such gleefully scary romps but, ultimately, limited character studies. They were guys who turned their limited knowledge of female psychology into effective haunted house rides. Even outside the gender implications, Peirce’s films “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Stop-Loss,” are rooted in location: the deep South, a place where patriotism, prejudice, and under-seated rebellion mix freely. At least she could have given character to Carrie’s town and set the world outside the camera frame into motion.
But aside from a single overhead shot of some houses, there’s nothing. There’s no deeper story about Carrie White here. There’s no sense of the strong-voiced director who I’m sure must exist, somewhere, in the making of this movie.
The takeaway is not as simple as “Don’t remake a classic film” or “Take more liberties with your material.” Pierce seemed very excited to make “Carrie,” and her interviews show no shortage of ideas for how to freshen the material. The film was also her only option short of total irrelevance, at this point in a career that’s only seen two other films made and many others scrapped and squandered by intrepid studios. When a strong female and lesbian director is given the reins to a major Hollywood genre release, in a studio system driven by male ego, we have to consider the implications. And when that director is all but missing from their work? Did executives fight to keep her at arm’s length? Was the mostly-male film crew too unsettled to collaborate equally? (A recent article about Peirce in “The New York Times” hints this might be the case.)
Which isn’t to say Peirce can’t be blamed for any of “Carrie’s” failings. She never finds a decisive tone in the direction, and she might not be the best choice as director for this type of Gothic horror story. But she was a unique choice, and a daring one, and I wish I could have felt her presence on screen, a telepathic hand asserting itself against the bullies and dogmatists who think they’re in control.