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Even the Dead Want Justice
on December 23, 2009
The great disappointment of Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones" isn't that it's so unpleasant, but that it tackles unpleasantness in a way that, for the most part, isn't compelling. It tells the story of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a murdered teenage girl whose spirit wanders in a kind of emotional purgatory, and even in death, she's angry at her killer and desperate for her family to move forward; while the idea is indeed a powerful one, the structure of the film is so disjointed and psychologically confusing that it's difficult for the idea to completely sink in. This is a well intentioned story, and there were individual moments I thought were handled nicely. But on the whole, it falls short, lacking focus, precision, and the right balance between plot, spectacle, mystery, and heavy-handed drama.
As the spirit of Susie wanders through a spectacular dreamscape of vast oceans, immense mountains, and sprawling fields, she periodically interjects with voiceover narrations, which not only diminish the power of interpretation, but also are so shamelessly poetic, mature, and philosophically profound that they really just belabor the point. If there's anything we learned from Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," it's to trust that the audience will understand what's going on without the aid of droning verbal explanations. I'm well aware that Alice Sebold's original novel was written in the first person, but must I remind you that books are not movies and movies are not books? When a story is finally given the visual treatment, when the words on the page are reinterpreted for the big screen, long stretches of expository dialogue are simply not necessary.
Neither the novel nor the film made any secret of the identity of Susie's killer; we know right off the bat that it was her neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). It's much easier to believe in this character when he's alone in his house, methodically toiling away on finely detailed dollhouses and precise scale drawings for underground hideaways, ones that will eventually be made from branches, wood, and earth. He's isolated, addicted to routine, and always scheming - a man obsessed. When he's in the presence of other people, however, he isn't even remotely convincing as the man no one would suspect of being a serial killer. Not once does he seem like a "normal" neighbor, not even when the police are interrogating him in his living room.
Caught in the middle of this tragedy is Susie's family, who for months endure painful uncertainties. Her father, Jack (Mark Wahlberg), is especially hard hit, eventually becoming so obsessed with discovering the truth that he drives away his long suffering wife, Abigail (Rachel Weisz). Of all the things "The Lovely Bones" gets wrong, it's portrayal of the Salmon family is just about right, Jackson apparently understanding that everyone mourns in their own way and that some have a harder time of it than others. The only exception to this is Susie's grandmother, Lynn (Susan Sarandon), who I never once believed was capable of bringing stability back into the Salmon home; she's a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, wise-cracking hurricane of a woman so stylistically out of place that it's impossible to accept her.
Other characters, most notably Susie's would-be love interest (Reece Ritchie) and misunderstood former classmate (Carolyn Dando), are adequately played but serve no real purpose other than to provide Susie with another outlet for wordy narrations. Even Len Fenerman, the detective assigned to investigate Susie's disappearance (Michael Imperioli), isn't given much to do except generate tension within the Salmon family for failing to find leads. I was, however, taken with Susie's sister, Lindsay (Rose McIver), a strong-willed, independent young woman who goes the lengths others aren't willing to go. This leads to the film's most effective scene, when she breaks into George Harvey's home and searches for clues. The suspense is palpable, to say the least.
If only the rest of the film had been as well-crafted. There's no denying that deep emotion courses through the story, and yes, much of it is relatable. In addition, there is something to be said for sparing the audience from disturbing visuals that would have amounted to nothing but shock value, namely Susie's murder and dismemberment. And, of course, the scenes of Susie in spirit-world are visually creative; I especially enjoyed a shot of gigantic ship-in-a-bottle kits sailing on a turbulent ocean and crashing against the rocky shore, which happens just as Jack angrily smashes his own ship-in-a-bottle collection. None of this is an issue. What is an issue is that, for everything it was meant to be emotionally and visually, the inconsistent tones and development of character made none of it convincing.
That being said, I'm sure many will respond to this movie, regardless of whether or not they've read Sebold's novel. Not everyone can relate to the pain of losing a loved one, especially if violence was involved, but most can imagine what it must be like, and the simple truth is that Peter Jackson knows this and uses it to his advantage. Take from this movie what you will. I personally would have preferred a more coherent screenplay, one that relied less on narrative passages and more on plot, plausible character development, and style. It would be too much to say that "The Lovely Bones" is a bad film; in spite of the end result, its heart was in the right place. It would be more accurate to say that it's awfully misguided, like singing when you know the words but not the music.