There is something inherently wonderful and inspiring about an underdog story. You empathize with the Person Least Likely To and feel inwardly pleased when they finally beat the odds, overcome their obstacles, and emerge triumphant.
And then, there’s Carrie.
The degree to which those movies succeed depends largely on who portrays the protagonist. Would anyone have bought into the original Rocky if Sylvester Stallone, with his thick accent, sweet nature, and ever-present butterfly bandages, had not taken on the lead role? If Sean Astin had not portrayed the title role of Rudy with such compassion and empathy, would anyone have cared if he played football for Notre Dame? Those actors inhabited those roles and truly made us believe in their struggles and cheer for their victories.
And then, there’s Sissy Spacek as Carrie White.
You know this story, right? The poor little girl, an outsider at high school and a pariah in her warped and strictly religious home, is asked to the prom by the football hero (at the behest of his mostly good-hearted girlfriend). Her mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie), does everything she can to undermine her daughter’s steps into the adult world. Carrie’s got a secret, though. She can move things with her mind. When the popular kids unleash their plan to humiliate Carrie at the dance, things get wild and deadly.
We get our first inkling of what kind of person Carrie is during the nudity-filled opening credit sequence. While showering after gym class, Carrie gets her first period and thinks she’s dying. The other girls, far more worldy and physically mature, pelt her with pads and tampons while chanting for Carrie to “plug it up.”
Although the blood and full frontal are present and perhaps a tad distracting during the sequence, it’s Spacek’s eyes that draw the viewer’s attention. Filled with tears, terror, and an expression of confusion that only happens when one feels betrayed by their body, Spacek instantly pulls us into Carrie’s worldview. Clueless about her own body, terrified of her surroundings and her taunting classmates, Carrie is more than a fish out of water. Spacek makes Carrie White a stranger in a familiar land, a non-playable character with neither agency nor control.
Spacek’s physicality lends to Carrie’s character. All skin and bones, Spacek seems like she would topple over while facing the slightest breeze. She wraps her arms around her chest to hide her breasts (which her mother charmingly refers to as “dirty pillows”). The embodiment of brokenness and repression in dirty shoes, Spacek’s slumped shoulders make Carrie both put upon and pitiable.
That ability to wither herself makes it all the more shocking when Carrie begins to unleash her telekinetic powers. Carrie knocks a kid off his bike when he calls her “Scary Carrie.” She makes things move around the house, much to her mother’s chagrin. To Margaret, everything is caused by sin. Carrie’s maturation into an adult is the result of past transgressions. She believes that Carrie’s telekinesis is from the Devil and that Carrie is a witch.
Carrie’s attempts to reason with her mother are fruitless. Spacek, with her soft Southern accent, does her best to hide her frustration through politeness and a modicum of respect. But nothing can prevent the fact that Carrie has been asked to prom by a boy. Despite Margaret’s warnings that “they’re all gonna laugh at you,” Carrie is determined to have her moment in the spotlight. She makes herself a pretty dress. Spacek stands straighter, smiles with confidence, and looks others in the eye. Spacek brings Carrie into her own simply by the way she walks.
When Carrie arrives at the prom with her golden boy dreamboat of a date, we feel nothing but pleased for her. We have watched her evolve from a frightened little girl in a shower stall to the belle of the ball. The underdog has risen to the top for a transcendent night of glory. It’s a stunning transformation, but there is one more stage equally as jaw-dropping.
As Carrie is being crowned prom queen, the popular yet mean kids dump a bucket of pig blood over her from a bucket in the rafters. The pail itself falls and bonks her date in the head. He crumples. Face bloody, dress ruined, Carrie loses it. Her mother’s mocking words echo in her head. With an eerie methodicalness, Carrie uses her powers to trap her classmates inside the school gymnasium. Fire breaks out. Escape is impossible. The body count rises incredibly high within a matter of minutes.
Yet again, we are drawn to Spacek’s eyes. Once filled with the fear of the unknown, they are wide, focused, filled with a rage that will not be contained. Chaos erupts everywhere she looks. No longer a girl, Spacek turns Carrie from a girl into a woman who has taken enough of everybody’s shit and will take no more. She walks through the burning gym, unscathed and relentless. Even Carrie’s self-sacrificing act of matricide at the end of the film feels like triumph, a defiant coming-of-age.
Some may consider Carrie to be a tragedy of almost Greek proportions, but I have never felt that way. Carrie is an underdog movie in the most violent of manners, chronicling the main character’s journey into who she really is and embracing that power in a way that frightens and, oddly, inspires.
Carrie wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, worked without Spacek in the lead role. Spacek brings Carrie White’s sweet spirit and awkward smile to life, the person who would have been kind to anyone who would have allowed it. That innocence makes Carrie’s ultimate reaction to a multitude of betrayals, that maelstrom of fire and blood, both devastating and authentic.