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View from Above
A murder victim hovers in purgatory
by Molly Templeton
THE LOVELY BONES: Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Jackson, Philippa Boyes and Fran Walsh, based on the novel by Alice Sebold. Cinematography, Andrew Lesnie. Editor, Jabez Olsson. Music, Brian Eno. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon and Rose McIver. Dreamworks/Paramount, 2009. PG-13. 135 minutes.
It seemed like a strange yet appropriate match: Peter Jackson — he of Lord of the Rings, of course — and Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel about a murdered girl looking back on her life and her family. Jackson has an expansive vision that had the potential to beautifully stretch Sebold’s intimate story across a cinematic framework; let us not forget his previous film involving teenage girls and death, Heavenly Creatures. When Saoirse Ronan (Atonement), with her narrow, intense face, was cast as poor dead Susie Salmon, The Lovely Bones became a film to look forward to.
But Bones is a hollow, rattling disappointment. With its fixation on serial killer George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) and the bright, shifting, ever-so-meaningful in-between — the place where Susie finds herself after her off-screen murder — the film bogs down in showiness. The story, adapted from Sebold’s novel by Jackson and his writing partners Philippa Boyes and Fran Walsh, is too loosely stitched together, its brief stronger pieces connected by narrow threads. Apart from Susie, a wide-eyed teen discovering an interest in photography, a first crush and the ability to sass her parents, the characters are limited to one key expression and hobby apiece: Susie’s father (Mark Wahlberg) meticulously builds ships inside bottles and frowns heartbrokenly as he tries to solve Susie’s case when he feels the police aren’t doing enough. Her mother (Rachel Weisz) spends her too-rare screen time reading voraciously from feminist texts, looking fragile and pushing her husband to move on. Susie’s moppet of a little brother makes childlike pronouncements about the afterlife; her sister mostly just goes running.
And then Susan Sarandon, as Grandma Lynn, sweeps in on a cloud of cigarette smoke and whiskey fumes, ostensibly to put the family back together. Instead, the Salmons fragment further, and Sarandon’s big moment, a montage of cleaning mishaps, plays out as a desperate attempt at levity in the least appropriate place. All the while, Susie is running around the in-between, where certain symbolic images crop up repeatedly: a lighthouse, a gazebo, a blooming red flower, the penguin from a snowglobe she had as a child. From time to time, Susie seems to stare through a window in the in-between, watching the goings-on back on earth as her sister and father get closer and closer to pegging Harvey as the vicious creep he is.
In some circles, much has been made of Jackson’s choice to avoid depicting Susie’s fate. There’s no mention of rape in the film, and we don’t see the murder; Susie’s ghost bolts from the scene of the crime. The grisly truth of her demise is slipped between the frames, where neither we nor she have to look at it. It was the right choice to skip showing the murder, but it somehow needed to feel present in order for this story to mean much of anything. Jackson leans too heavily on Tucci’s creepy George Harvey to provide a sense of danger and the reminder of mourning; we watch Harvey making his deadly plans and see the threat he poses, but it’s oddly disconnected from what happened to Susie.
The Lovely Bones is about what happens to a family after a terrible loss, but Jackson’s focus is on everything but the repercussions for Susie’s family — and her spirit, hovering in a purgatory of her own devising. It’s all well and good to dream up a lovely afterworld in which we’re given the time to come to terms with leaving our loved ones behind, but Jackson avoids facing the horrors that sent Susie to that world, opting instead for a mushy-sweet suggestion that everything will be fine if we just move on. Everyone, mystically, will get what’s coming to them.