A film review by Craig J. Koban January 21, 2010
THE LOVELY BONES
2009, PG-13, 135 mins.
2009, PG-13, 135 mins.
Susie: Saoirse Ronan / Mr. Salmon: Mark Wahlberg / Mrs.
Salmon: Rachel Weisz / Grandma Lynn: Susan Sarandon / George:
Tucci / Len: Michael Imperioli
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.