The Lovely Bones is Peter Jackson’s other film, the one he directed between his passion project of King Kong and his return to Middle-Earth with The Hobbit trilogy. Based on the bestseller by Alice Sebold, this supernatural drama is both deeply emotional and deeply flawed, a film that tries to balance beauty and evil and manages to cancel both out.
I enjoyed Saoirse Ronan in City of Ember and her ingenuous skill carries over to The Lovely Bones, in which she portrays Susie Salmon, a perfectly happy 14-year-old girl in 1973 who falls victim to an uncomfortably leery neighbor George Harvey, played with unsettling guile by Stanley Tucci. She hopes to be a wildlife photographer; she has a mutual crush on a fellow student from England; and she has her whole life ahead of her. Or rather, had, since she succumbs to the very stranger danger that kids are always warned about nowadays. The rest of the film follows her family as they deal with their loss, particularly her heartbroken parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz), even as Susie explores her personal heaven and watches those she left behind through a fantastical lens.
The film as a whole reminded me of The Five People You Meet in Heaven (they both feature Michael Imperioli) mixed with the serial killer story from the 1983 miniseries Chiefs, yet falling short of either. Everything about Harvey is disturbing (though thankfully not graphic), from his methodical planning of the crime to his efficient hiding of it, similar to Keith Carradine’s role as a murderer in Chiefs, and it’s no wonder Tucci received a Best Supporting Actor nomination. As the story continues, the audience’s desire for justice grows as well, or revenge in Susie’s case. The anticipation grows as both another murder and his comeuppance approach, and when the climax arrives, the height of tension strangely coincides with the height of romance, a reincarnate second chance which ultimately supplants the more concrete drama. At the moment when we think the killer will be caught in the act, Susie lets him go, for rather selfish reasons, in my opinion, since he clearly plans to continue his death spree. By the time he gets some form of just desserts, it feels random and tacked on, despite some foreshadowing, with little apparent closure for those he wronged. By the end, everyone just gets over it, and there’s even the suggestion that things are better for Susie’s loss. Certainly, growth from tragedy is healthy and necessary, but it’s a stretch to consider everyone the better for it.
In addition, the scenes of Susie traversing the ethereal “in-between” are certainly lovely, with a vibrancy of color and fluidity of landscape that suggests an eternal dream, yet they ultimately serve little purpose except to indulge in giant special effects. There’s surely an artistic, symbolic reason for crumbling gazebos and shattered ships in bottles, essentially to offer a more visually impactful perspective to what is happening on earth, but the deep-seated grief from the talented cast carries more than enough poignancy, making the effects redundant and excessive.
While the film’s heaven is basically devoid of God, the kind of happy, watered-down, self-made afterlife Hollywood prefers, it is not without beauty. The best example of the attempted duality of repugnance and hope involves Harvey’s other victims, listed and shown in chilling succession yet revisited in “heaven” as a morbid but happy sisterhood. This is the film’s high point, and it sadly goes downhill from there. While it tries earnestly to lighten the mood with existential hope and Susan Sarandon’s comic relief, the film cannot escape the fact that it is a sad story, well-told but unsatisfying.
Best line: (Susie) “There was one thing my murderer didn’t understand; he didn’t understand how much a father could love his child.”Rank: Honorable Mention (though on the lower end)
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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