by Jeremy Clemmons, Staff Writer
The purgatory imagined in Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” – based on the best-selling novel by Alice Sebold – is one of immensity and awe; a limbo of roving vistas and coruscating foliage, evoking comparison from Chytilová and Monet, to acid trips (the film often screams, “This is the ’70s!”) and “What Dreams May Come.” But it’s also a place of death. It harbors all of the memories and clues to its inhabitant’s brutal rape and murder, even if we can’t see, or feel the impact of either.
Our story begins in 1973 by introducing us to Susie Salmon, (played with considerable effort by Saoirse Ronan) a typical 14-year-old girl, replete with schoolgirl crushes and an insatiable love for photography. “I want to be wildlife photographer,” she pronounces early on. She is survived – will be survived – by her adoring friends and family: her father, Jack Salmon (Mark Wahlberg), mother, Abigail Salmon (Rachel Weisz) and two younger siblings. Add to that an advice-giving grandmother (Susan Sarandon) who, granted, serves said advice alongside a glass of scotch and a pack of cigarettes.
Little does Susie know she’s being watched by her plotting and reclusive neighbor Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci)—a character conceived as having one too many comb-overs and thickened mustache hairs to be considered anything other than a serial killer. (Apparently, profiling was still in its early days in 1973.) Which is what he is. Susie is raped and murdered at the hands of Mr. Harvey one fateful night, and she ascends toward heaven, leaving behind the aches and pains of death for her family to cope with and disentangle.
So far, so good? Almost. Peter Jackson, perhaps deferring the likely controversy (and an R-rating), decides not to film Susie’s death. All we get are the salient remains of its brutality: a bloody sink, a switchblade, and a thin fog of obvious devastation from the scene of the crime. And while we know what happened, and likely how it happened, we are nonetheless deprived of the emotional blow of the crime, which Susie’s family genuinely mourns. And mourns. What remains then, as we follow Susie into the psychedelic fields of afterlife, is a substantial emotional connection with those left behind.
As Susie spends her days in suspended bliss – a much different world than the starker, more understated purgatory of Sebold’s novel – those below are ripped apart by her tragedy. Her father and sister, Lindsey Salmon (Rose McIver) eventually begin an investigation into her murder. Abigail flees to work on a California orchard as a result of her husband’s obsession. Cue Grandma Lynn’s move in, which results in all sorts of drunken havoc.
But none of this seems to add up to much more than distracted drama for Jackson, who ultimately slates the film as a through-and-through thriller. His technical sophistry at times overwhelms the picture, conjuring remarkable tonal shifts—but always refocusing the narrative as a “whodunit.” Our interest begins to shift too far away from Susie and her compassion for her family’s togetherness. Later on in the film when she finally receives her long-awaited “first kiss,” our interest is compulsively drawn to other events – a fleeing killer, Mr. Harvey, for one – rather than her palpable excitement.
Is “The Lovely Bones” un-filmable, then? Yes and no. On one hand we must ask why female victimization is always presented in “fairy tale” terms. This is something Jackson is familiar with (“Heavenly Creatures”) but is not exclusive to. Sebold, is conceivably just as guilty, if there is a verdict at all. But the novel’s greatest strength is not in its politics but its heart. And there is none of that here. None at all.