Although seeing a movie about a murdered 14 year old narrating her way through the “in-between” might not be your FIRST choice of movies to see on Christmas (Sherlock Holmes, anyone?), The Lovely Bones is what I ended up getting tickets to on a cold X-Mas in NYC. Was I disappointed? Not exactly. But there were definitely a few bumps on The Lovely Bones road that I could have done without.
Based on Alice Sebold’s hit 2002 novel of the same name, The Lovely Bones recounts the horrors of 14 year old Susie Salmon, who is murdered by a pedophile in her 1970s neighborhood. Susie learns to live in the difficult reality of the world beyond, existing in a fantasy-inspired “in-between” world peppered with larger than life versions of everything she loved on earth. As wonderful as the “in-between” is, Susie cannot move on to her final resting place because she is held back by the need to watch over those she loved on earth, especially her family. She watches over those she left behind, as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of their daughter and friend.
As Susie watches over her family, she also simultaneously tracks her murderer’s every move. A pedophile who lived in her neighborhood, Mr. Harvey (played by an almost unrecognizable Stanley Tucci) lures Susie to what becomes her final resting place. Because he evades immediate capture, Susie grapples with the hate she feels for her murderer. Consumed with uncovering his deeds and seeking her revenge, she cannot move beyond her life on Earth, and remains stuck in the “in-between”.
Even more consuming is the fact that Susie must watch as her family relives the tragedy day-in and day-out. The death of a daughter rips them apart, and they cannot seem to get closure and move on. Her mother Abigail (played with a unique subtle strength by Rachel Weisz) hopelessly tries to move on from the loss of a child, while her father Jack (a devastatingly unbalanced Mark Wahlberg) refuses to let go of Susie. Jack becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to his daughter, and Susie watches from the in-between as her memory tears her father, and her family apart.
Director Peter Jackson, best known for directing the record-shattering Lord of the Rings series, certainly brings his patented CGI fantasy touch to the movie. But instead of improving it, the CGI generated images in Susie’s afterlife give the story a falsified sense of fantasy. This story is not a light one, and while the world that Jackson creates is beyond beautiful (seriously, if that’s what heaven looks like, I might re-think my stance on it not really existing), it detracts from the gravity of the tragic tale. Instead of being guided through the complexities of characters suffering, I found myself being stimulated by pretty images and forgetting that a young girl in unimaginable pain was at the center of the story here.
Even more obnoxious than the fact that Jackson beautifies a story with morally and emotionally dark angles that need to be explored, is the fact that he forces the film to fit into the mold of the typical thriller. With scary chases, moments of tension, and the requisite stern detective (Michael Imperioli, yet again playing a cop) thrown into the mix, the movie becomes a cop-and-robbers chase of the bad guy. Although Jackson does a good job of leaving you on the edge of your seat, that’s not what the book–and ultimately this story–is about. We already know early on that Susie is dead, and we know who killed her. Stretching out the “will he get caught” element over two hours is a redundant tactic, and is just another strategy in Jackson’s attempt to simply a story driven by characters that are largely incomprehensible in their actions.
What really saves the movie from structural pitfalls is the superb acting. Jackson did an amazing job of casting actors that feed off each other, and every single performance in the film is grounding and real. Best known for her previous work in Atonement, 15 year old Saoirse Ronan is incredible in the role of Susie. Her deep blue eyes signal her sadness, her fear, trauma, and eventually, her understanding. Working almost entirely against a green-screen (images were imposed in CGI-errific post), the actress draws from a remarkable place within herself to produce a stunning take on an unimaginably traumatized teen. Equally as compelling is Stanley Tucci as Mr. Harvey, her murderer. The actor becomes cold, snide and calculating, playing the part of a pedophilic serial killer to alarming perfection. Mark Wahlberg shines as the father driven to insanity by the loss of a child. And Rachel Weisz, as the heartbroken mother, gives a subtle and layered performance.
I’ve seen worse, and The Lovely Bones, thanks in large part to the actors, is a mostly entertaining and complex final film product. While fans of the book will be disappointed in the lighter nature of the screen version, it still gives us food for intense thought on the concepts of revenge and redemption.
The Lovely Bones will hit theaters nationwide tomorrow, Friday the 15th.
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