"To daily fraud, contempt, abuse and wrong,
Within doors, or without, still as a fool,
In power of others, never in my own —
Scarce half I seem to live, dead more than half."
— John Milton
Every high school has them: shy, quiet girls who either will not or cannot play the same social game their peers are playing. Although they might be beautiful, kind, and intelligent, they keep their heads almost parallel to their desks, desperately trying to avoid detection and blend into the background. They shrink from verbal or physical contact with parents, teachers, and administrators. Most of the time, they remain invisible — until it's time for gym class, when their loneliness and solitude, instead of protecting them, secretes an odor that excites teenage predators and drives them to new heights of cruelty.
Carrie, Stephen King's debut novel, is about one of those shy, quiet girls — albeit one who can also move objects with her mind. Director Brian De Palma's stylish, lurid 1976 adaptation of King's story exuded a sophisticated prurience that was both frightening and weirdly funny; its famous final shock still evokes gasps and guffaws.
Such audacious comic touches are largely absent from the new version of Carrie directed by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry). Peirce is less interested in Carrie's pulp pedigree and more interested in reenvisioning the tale of poor, telekinetic Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) as a modern myth.
This new Carrie never startles like De Palma's did. But whenever the sadistic teenagers and clueless adults surrounding Carrie get in her face, the atmosphere of dread and foreboding thickens. Instead of mindlessly aping a sleazy, scary-funny classic, Peirce's somber take on Carrie posits needless, pointless bloodshed and endless, inconceivable suffering as the defining characteristics of human existence.
For Margaret, Carrie's religious-fanatic mother (Julianne Moore), this is no surprise. She's convinced herself that suffering is the only trustworthy feeling; it's been that way ever since Margaret gave birth to her "little girl" — whom, in a fit of rage and pain, she immediately tries to kill with a pair of scissors.
The constant presence of bloody suffering in her daughter's life is established during this stark prelude, but it's subtly underscored in another scene midway through the film. One day in English class, Carrie is asked to read a favorite poem. After she reads an excerpt from John Milton's "Samson Agonistes," her snarky teacher scolds her for trying to scare her classmates. She sits back down at her desk, ashamed and resigned to what Milton called "Life in captivity/Among inhuman foes." She's so beaten and fearful that when Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort), a gentle Joe High School type, takes a friendly interest in her, her only response is, "Why?"
Tommy's essential human decency transforms Carrie, and this momentary lifting of Carrie's discomfort is what gives the remainder of the film its tragic weight. Carrie's prom night and its aftermath are the stuff of pop-culture legend, but even when you know the outcome, the carnage remains devastating.