A film review by Craig J. Koban January 21, 2010


2009, PG-13, 135 mins.

Susie: Saoirse Ronan / Mr. Salmon: Mark Wahlberg / Mrs. Salmon: Rachel Weisz / Grandma Lynn: Susan Sarandon / George: Stanley Tucci / Len: Michael Imperioli

Directed by Peter Jackson / Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson, based on the novel by Alice Sebold

Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES – based on the beloved best-selling 2002 novel of the same name by Alice Sebold – is a film that betrays itself without really knowing it.  

Here is a family drama that has two distinct hemispheres that vie for attention all throughout the film’s 135-minute running time.  One facet concerns the boundless obscenity of the rape and murder of an innocent and young teenage girl and the emotionally brutal aftermath of it where her family desperately attempts to cope with varying degrees of success.  The other facet – which all but trivializes the tortuous and upsetting dramatic undercurrent of the film’s story about the girls demise – concerns what happens to the victim when she reaches “the In-between,” or rather that ethereal location between heaven and earth.  When the film is grounded on earth it has moments of emotional power; when it’s not, it becomes too light-hearted and carefree, which seems disingenuous to the somber and macabre tone of what Sebold was perhaps going for in her source material. 

The film was directed and co-written by Peter Jackson (who made THE LORD OF THE RINGS Trilogy, and certainly is no slouch when it comes to using multi-million dollar artifice and trickery to provide sights of real pageantry and gusto).  Yet, as supremely strong as Jackson is as a conjurer of visual effects dynamism (he is easily the equal of contemporaries like Lucas, Spielberg, and Cameron) THE LOVELY BONES is considerably stunted by his focus and presentation of the afterlife.  Surely, how to portray this contentious and debatable part of a person’s beyond mortal existence has stymied filmmakers for years, and Jackson seems very equal to the task as he presents pre-heavenly vistas of alternating, candy-cane hued landscapes and images, filled with bright and lustrous colors that suggest the frivolity and mischievous spirit of the 14-year-old main character.  As the girl looks down on the lives of those she left behind she segues from one celestial and fantastic panorama to the next, and there is not doubt that Jackson and his team at Weta Digital makes these moments an escapist and sumptuous feast for the eyes and imagination.   

Yet, as impressively mounted and envisioned these moments are, they paradoxically seem superfluous and a bit self-indulgently excessive the more the film progresses.  The themes of Seybold’s literary work were the struggles of the girl’s family to cope and adjust with the grisly reality of her despicable rape and murder, while commenting on the fragile nature of the nuclear family in general during the 1970’s.  The girl’s death acts as an unwanted catalyst in a chain of events that slowly unravels the moral fabric of her family.  The subject matter and ominous tone of this story should have been a disturbing, button-pushing, and deeply troubling parable, but with every transition from that bleak human story back on earth to the more vibrant, vivacious, and inviting CGI-dreamscape the more THE LOVELY BONES feels like it’s playing things too safe; it misses heart wrenching sentiment and instead feels goes out of its way to be a less upsetting and more easily digestible PG-13 film to be embraced by as large of an audience as possible. 

In the source material the girl is cruelly and maliciously accosted by a sexual predator and is subsequently murdered, dismembered, and hidden to avoid discovery.  In the film Jackson absconds from any specific indications of how the girl was killed and the murder itself is never shown off screen.  Now, I would certainly prefer not to see a young girl killed in graphic and gratuitous detail for sensationalistic effect in any movie, but the way Jackson sidesteps the details of her demise feels too pedestrian.  I think that this approach, as a result, forfeits the profundity and complexity of the hellish nature of this crime and instead makes it almost an afterthought.  The source story was deeply distressing, shocking, and difficult to assimilate for readers; in the film, the raw emotional power of what happens to the girl is so diminished, so marginalized, and so sanitized that it seems that the heavenly imagery was what Jackson was really preoccupied with. 

The film is benefited by a great – and make that a thankless performance under the circumstances – by young Saoirse Ronan.  She is remarkably assured and adept for her age, a raw young talent that, like Jodi Foster, will make a swift transition into refined adult roles (she was also a very deserving Oscar nominee playing a jealous, conveying stool pigeon in ATONEMENT, and holder of perhaps the bluest eyes in the movies).  She serves as the film’s narrator and main character, Susie Salmon, and she informs us that on December 6, 1973 (at the tender age of 14) that she was tragically killed.  The first sections of the film – its finest and most involving – shows her life with her middle-class suburban family: there’s her mother, Abigail (Rachel Weisz), her father, Jack (Mark Wahlberg), and her younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver).  The opening montages of her life have a spunky spontaneity: we see her pining for the affections of a high school crush, her sharing a passion with her father for the hobby of building ships in bottles, and her love of all things photography.  In short, she lives a normal, fairly well adjusted, and content upbringing. 

All of this irrecoverably changes one day when she walks home from school and is greeted by her neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci, harnessing a sickening comb-over, a vile nervousness, and a grotesquely unnerving aura) that lures poor Susie into an underground room that he tells her is a haven for young people like her to get away from their problems.  This is the last place where we see her alive.  Her disappearance and apparent death unravels her family: Abigail struggles so badly that she leaves the family altogether (which prompts her mother, played by Susan Sarandon, to come in and help Jack), whereas Jack wallows up into a pool of self-pity and empathy (all why becoming deeply paranoid regarding finding out the real indentity of the killer).  Even though a kind and secure police detective (played nicely by Michael Imperioli) does what he can within the law, Lindsey finds that he is not doing enough (she also harbors deep suspicions about Mr. Harvey next door).  While all of this is happening, Susie finds herself in a peculiar rest stop between heaven and earth, where everything around her reflects her mood at any given time.  She is also able to watch out over her family back home on earth, and before she ascends to a proper heavenly eternal afterlife, she feels the need to make some sort of connection with them to assist them with capturing the killer once and for all. 

Again, one of the finest aspects of the film is also the source of its largest fault: the sheer visual innovation and astounding Technicolor sheen of Susie’s afterlife are wondrous sights to behold, but they don’t belong in this film.  Far too much of the time we see her and her fellow purgatory best friend (Nikki SooHoo) enjoy all of the pleasures of being…uh…dead and in the afterlife.  Heaven to Susie is the ultimate playground where anything is possible and she can be anyone she wants to be.  Unfortunately, the cozy and inviting façade of the afterlife here distracts us from the harsh core of THE LOVELY BONES: her murder and rape and the tumultuous shockwaves it sends through her family.  Furthermore, she also provides a running commentary on the nature of life, death, grief, and coping that feels far too preachy and redundant than it should have been. 

The film is also a muddled and confusing affair for other reasons, like, for example, how Susie is able to apparently interact with certain earthbound people (like the love she left behind) but not others, like her father, who is driving himself mad looking for her killer.  Other elements are only sketchily developed as well, like a would-be troubling and polarizing subplot involving Susie’s mother abruptly leaving her family and responsibilities when she can’t take grieving anymore: I think the reason she leaves is because she feels trapped by her own guilt, sadness, and her suffocating domestic responsibilities, but Jackson’s script (co-written by LOTR writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) never really embellishes or develops the reasons why.  Even more disappointing is the handling of Susie’s pill popping, boozing, and freewheeling grandmother, played with full-tilt, campy, and scenery chewing glee by Susan Sarandon.  The cartoonish slant of her character seems counter-productive to the tone of the film: do we really need obligatory comic relief in a film like this? 

Then there is the fiendish and monstrous killer himself, played in a freakishly frightening performance by Stanley Tucci, and the actor infuses this troubling role with the essence of a man that has all of his normal impulses and sexual desires left reprehensibly unchecked.  He also occupies the single finest sequence of the film, which Jackson, to his credit, forges jolting tension and theatre-chair grabbing suspense as good as Hitchcock ever did.  However, as impressive as Tucci’s tour de force performance is, George Harvey is unavoidably a weakly developed and realized creation.  There is little insight into his motives and little efforts are made to flesh him out; all we get is a fairly stock serial killer archetype.  His final scene in the film (which Jackson augmented with CGI-effects after a bad test screening, never a good sign) seems not only horribly phony, but also egregiously dissatisfying.   

THE LOVELY BONES is a pleasure to sit back and look at: The 1970’s period décor is bang on; the smooth and savvy soundtrack of disco era tunes is pleasurable; the performances by Saoirse Ronan (displaying a maturity and poise well above her age), Tucci, and especially Weisz and Wahlberg (the latter pair that really display their characters grief and sense of loss with a distressing veracity) hit their marks, and psychedelic and trippy visual splendor of the afterlife are consummately crafted.  But what about the true dramatic horrors of the film?  Too many instances of Susie’s magical, gravity defying, and “anything is possible” land of adolescent Valhalla and obvious attempts by the makers to subvert the heinousness of the crime in question disrupt most of the emotionally resonating aspects of the underlining story.  I was expecting to come out of THE LOVELY BONES intensely moved and more than a bit distressed.  Ironically enough, the film disturbed me more with its predilection to overwhelming viewers with the liveliness and endless frivolity of the afterlife.  Really, what purpose does this film have with showing the afterlife anyway?  Isn’t the real heart of THE LOVELY BONES its earthbound narrative?  Jackson could have spared us with less visions worthy of Hobbits and Middle Earth and instead could have honed in on the less ostentatious and meaningful human drama, which is what could have made this film so lovely indeed.

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