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THE LOVELY BONES, 2009
Young Susie watches over her family from "the in-between" as they deal with the aftermath of her brutal rape and murder.
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It takes a really talented director to make a film about the afterlife, even when working off the bones of another work. It's all too easy to fall into easy spiritualism and empty, banal rhetoric. Or worse, to give way to every fantastic set piece he ever dreamed up in one big, overdone mess.
God knows, Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings") is a talented director, and his adaptation of Alice Seybold's "The Lovely Bones" manages the tricky task of sidestepping most of those risks while simultaneously embracing them. The end result is a character study masquerading as a story about life after death (or vice versa) that could easily leave some people feeling unsatisfied. But keep heart, it's better than it might seem at first glance.
When 14 year old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) falls victim to a serial killer with a thing for young girls (Stanley Tucci) she finds herself trapped in a form of limbo, unable to move on and unable to stop watching the lives of her family and friends as they continue on without her.
Even though a crime is at the heart of "The Lovely Bones" it is not a mystery or crime story; it begins with the crime and the nature of it is never in question and while that fact is played for tension here and there it's not really what the films about. Crime films generally focus on death and/or punishment and while "The Lovely Bones" considers those, it's got bigger fish to fry. It's about life after death, literally. What happens to someone when they die: to them, to us, to the world around.
Susie, dead but she's unable to let go of her life, stuck in a world that mutates to with her subconscious, both protecting her from and drawing her inevitably towards the truth of what has happened to her. She's undergoing the universe's worse case of denial.
More interesting are her living family, who must first come to grips with what's happened to her and then try and move on with their lives, always wondering how, how is that possible when facing such loss. As beautiful and imaginative the afterlife aspects of the "The Lovely Bones" are it’s the family that's the real heart of the film.
The thing that has always separated Jackson from a lot of his other big-budget adventure brethren is his attention to and ability with his actors and "The Lovely Bones" is no different. Saoirse Ronan is as empathetic and expressive as she was in his Oscar nominated turn in "Atonement," at least in the opening 20 minutes as we get the last brief glimpse of her real life, and the moments leading up to her murder.
And Mark Wahlberg is probably the best he's been since "Boogie Nights" as he gradually falls apart under the strain of his daughter's fate. He holds the film together in the way Jack Salmon is unable to as he starts his own mis-guided attempt to find his daughters killer.
But that's where Jackson's particular idiosyncrasies get the better of him. He's always been drawn to darker material—he started his career as a gore horror director after all—and that's no different here. Despite the best moments of the film residing with the disintegrating Salmon's, Jackson can't seem to stay away from Susie's killer. It is interesting side, how death affects the ones who cause it, but it feels like he's dwelling a bit, and it's more of a distraction than it needs to be. It takes time away from other family members, particularly mom Abigail (Rachel Weisz) who is so important thematically but hardly ever around. The performances are great; don't get me wrong, but often ill placed.
A lot of the film is left behind to make room for some splendid visual moments in Susie's afterlife. Early on, as she explores her world, it is quite fantastic, with a few virtuoso moments of visual imagination. Like Brian Eno's atmospheric score, it's flashy without being flashy, and that is hard to do.
But it also feels a little bit for naught. There is a balancing act going on between the two worlds—without the family the afterlife would be oppressively upbeat and without the afterlife the family would be hopelessly dreary. It doesn't work quite as well as it could but there's quite a bit there to be grateful for, and it does get better with repeat viewings, one the pitfalls are out of the way and you can concentrate on its strengths.
In the end, "The Lovely Bones" is probably a much better idea for a movie than it is a movie, but it's still a very good one, and those don't come along too often.