The Lovely Bones
Dir: Peter Jackson
At 135 minutes, The Lovely Bones is Peter Jackson’s shortest film since The Frighteners. As the only guy on Earth who still loves King Kong, I regret to say it’s Jackson’s biggest failure since… ever, a film that seems like it should be making Big & Important (© 2009 James Cameron) statements about life and death, but instead struggles with its own shortsightedness.
Based on Alice Sebold’s novel, The Lovely Bones follows the Salmon family as oldest daughter Susie (Saoirse Ronan) dies at the hands of George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), an otherwise unassuming neighbor. Susie finds herself in the place between Earth and Heaven, unable to move on. Meanwhile the rest of the family copes as such: patriarch Jack (Mark Wahlberg) becomes obsessed with revealing the killer, mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) skips town, Lynn (Susan Sarandon) provides drunken grandma comic relief and children Lindsey (Rose McIver) and Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale) continue to exist onscreen. Also, in the wake of Susie’s death her crush Ray (Reece Ritchie) befriends the spooky art student Ruth (Carolyn Dando), who appropriately saw Susie’s ghost immediately after her murder. To further depress you about the supreme waste of talent at work in this film, the score is by Brian Eno.
For a director so adept at horror, Jackson surprisingly quells his sensibilities by glossing over every single bit of ugliness in the film, save for Stanley Tucci’s effectively creepy portrayal of the serial killer down the street. He omits the details of the protagonist’s murder (unlike the novel, rape doesn’t figure into the equation even though the author’s real-life rape was the impetus for the novel) to the point where we never even see a body. Not to sound bloodthirsty (even though I am), but to qualify the beauty of the afterlife we really need some ugly horror to juxtapose, considering Jackson’s idyllic portrayal of the suburbs. Otherwise, as far as the viewer is concerned, poor Susie may as well have fallen into a magic portal.
We’re not just talking horror here. By using the “Who killed our daughter” aspect of the story as the film’s major plotline, Jackson and co. completely jettison that which would have made The Lovely Bones powerful and emotionally engaging: the family drama. How does an entire family deal with the death of one of its own? I haven’t a clue except that it makes Mark Wahlberg go nuts, which the film spends time on because it figures into the investigation. When Abigail leaves her family — which should be emotionally complex but feels perfunctory in that “honey, you care more about the case than you do me” kind of way — nobody seems to mind, especially not Susie’s siblings, who barely matter in the film except when Lindsey gets to serve a pivotal plot function. How can a movie ostensibly about a family dealing with death be so unconcerned with the family?
That the film obviously grasps for more further frustrates. In an early scene Abigail and Jack have sex in Abigail’s college dorm room. The camera pans over to a pile of intellectual canon (Camus, Siddartha) that suddenly transforms into a neat stack of cookbooks and home & garden guides. It’s 12 years later and they’ve got kids. Is the film trying to say that Abigail’s concerns have changed since starting a family or that she’s been forced to conform and is generally unhappy? Who the hell knows?
The afterlife scenes, while visually stunning, fail even greater than the earthbound segments. Susie, saddled with a guide who barely registers as a character, explores the in-between world, alternating between green screen splendor and trying to affect events in the realm of the living. Occasionally mundane events show up in the supernatural world as grand CGI metaphors. Jack builds model ships, so we cut back and forth between giant glass bottles with ships in them crashing onto the shore as the anguished smashes them in real life. Because we couldn’t figure that out on our own. Ultimately, unlike her family, Susie has no immediate attainable goal. Sometimes she plays around. Sometimes she shouts at living people to get their attention. The scenes prove just as ineffectual as their protagonist.
After spending the last 15 years or thereabouts adapting other people’s work, Jackson and his usual collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens shockingly stumble (and tumble all the way down the ravine) in adapting The Lovely Bones. What could have been a visually poetic film (however you want to define that) instead finds itself strangled by words, particularly those of its dead protagonist who narrates the entire world of the living when the film should be showing.
Obviously the narration comes from adapting the novel, but considering that film adaptations aim to illustrate that which appears on the page, you already have a built-in narrator. It’s called a camera.