by Brett Parker
I’m all for movies that try to put a sunny, positive spin on something dark and tragic. The key to pulling this off is to bring an authentic, substantial weight to the darkness. If this fails to happen, then the whole enterprise could likely be revealed as a shallow cartoon. Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones attempts to take an incredibly tragic premise, one that regards the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, and brings it a glossy, almost Spielbergian sense of optimism. That Jackson’s vision never really grossly alienates us and sustains our attention throughout an uneven movie is perhaps the strongest thing this film does right.
The film takes place in early 1970s Pennsylvania and we meet a sweet 14-year-old girl named Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). Susie is a happy child leading a simple suburban life with her loving family. She spends her days indulging in her love for photography and pining for an older boy (Reece Ritchie) at her school. Life is very pleasant for the pre-teen, until the fateful day she takes a shortcut home from school in a cornfield and encounters George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), an unsettling creepster from her neighborhood. George tricks Susie into entering a hidden ditch below the cornfield and it is there in which he rapes and murders Susie, covering his tracks and disposing the body in an expert manner.
We then follow Susie as her spirit enters into an “in-between,” a dreamlike universe in the afterlife in which Susie is able to live in a heaven-like existence while also keeping track of her loved ones on Earth. The in-between is a world of infinite beauty, ranging from exquisite beach, forest, and city landscapes, ones that can be magically altered by Susie’s mood. As she turns her attention back to Earth, she must watch helplessly as her father Jack (Mark Walberg) and mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) battle their grief while her alcoholic grandmother (Susan Sarandon) tries to help out with domestic life. Also concerning Susie is the fact that her sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) tries to solve her disappearance and draws dangerously closer into George Harvey’s realm.
The Lovely Bones wants both to be an achingly revealing portrait of family mourning and a thoughtful meditation on what the afterlife might be like. The problem is that these two plot threads often interfere with each other instead of complimenting each other’s objectives. The film bounces so frantically between its two plots that neither one slows down to develop its ideas. This proves dangerous, for the film obviously has big emotional things to say, but the zippy pacing never allows them to be said. More patient and observant scenes of emotional revelations are desperately needed. When Susie eventually speaks of strong, beautiful relationships (which she refers to as “lovely bones”) being formed in the aftermath of her death, we have no idea what she’s talking about because no relationship we’ve witnessed on screen strongly supports her theory.
Whenever I take in an artistic work regarding the afterlife, I almost instinctively compare it to Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come, which is, in my opinion, the single greatest fictional work ever created regarding life after death. Matheson did an extensive amount of research regarding afterlife studies and produced a story that surprisingly provided plausible answers to every question we’ve ever had about existence and death. Filmmaker Vincent Ward adapted the novel into a superb 1998 film starring Robin Williams, but the movie understandably contained only a fraction of the novel’s wisdom (for mainly the usual reasons most movie adaptations don’t live up to their source novels). So awesomely detailed and alluringly drawn is Matheson’s vision that it exposes most heavenly works as preposterous.
In the face of Matheson’s brilliant work, The Lovely Bones does present a halfway-convincing, mostly-intriguing spiritual universe. Of course it’s not as exquisite as Matheson’s vision, but it’s not without its strengths. It supports the Vanilla Sky ideal that if we were to construct our own private world, it would be heavily basked in our pop sensibilities. As a pre-teen girl murdered in the early 1970s, Susie’s world is painted in post-Flower Power, pre-Disco flourishes. Giant beach balls, rainbow colors, hippie-tinged fields, and a Studio 54-flavored cityscape surround Susie’s new world and the visuals surprisingly engage us.
When people pass away, we are often told they are “looking down on us from heaven.” I’ve always wondered how a spirit, now free to roam the endless landscape of the infinite universe, would still be able to concern themselves with Earthly matters. The biggest delight of this film is that it presents a fascinating solution to that dilemma. Susie’s heaven is often infiltrated with symbols and undercurrents representing the emotional state of her loved ones on Earth. When one of her family members faces despair, for example, her sunny landscape instantly turns shadowy and chilly. The film’s best scene shows a beach in Susie’s world becoming surrounded by giant ships encased in gigantic glass bottles. These represent the model ships Susie’s Dad collected as a hobby. In a fit of emotional rage back on Earth, he smashes every one of these ships in his study, causing the ships near Susie’s beach to smash and crash all around her. Through this magnificent destruction, Susie is able to connect with her father’s emotional anguish as it is on Earth.
The inconsistencies within the script are skillfully smoothed over by the talented cast, especially Ronan. She plays Susie as a wise and thoughtful girl, helping us to deal with the fact that perhaps the film isn’t as wise and thoughtful as it sets out to be. After her performances in Atonement and now The Lovely Bones, Ronan is proving to be one of the finest child stars we’ve ever had. She holds an astonishing control of character and there are moments where her inner-tenderness flows so strongly through her face that it truly levels you. Elsewhere, Walberg and Weisz prove to be subtle and convincing in the face of diminished screen time while Sarandon is convincing as a comic caricature. Tucci is convincing as a serial killer who is less a tragic figure and more of a horror movie monster. The film has little empathy for him, yet Tucci is still able to convey his character’s unspeakable impulses. For what the role requires, Tucci is creepily effective.
I have not read the best-selling Alice Sebold novel on which the film is based, but faithful fans have informed me that it is more uncompromising and realized than Jackson’s adaptation. The film itself may be something of a mess, but I truly appreciated its sense of creativity and ambition. This is not an easy subject to tackle, and it’s kind of interesting how Jackson tries to bring a zestful cinematic energy to it. Jackson is a filmmaker always pushing for a unique aesthetic spirit, one that is defiant of traditional structures and aims for heart-tugging emotions. I still wonder if a more subtle director would’ve been more appropriate for this material (I think Brad Silberling, a maestro of death and mourning, could’ve done this story justice) but I found myself entertained and appreciative of Jackson’s bold creative strokes. It spares the film from being a solemn downer. The problem, however, is that this material just might demand such a tone.