This review contains some spoilers for the film. The spoilers are marked to the best of my ability.
For most of the running time of The Lovely Bones I thought the film was bad, but when the movie entered the final twenty minutes I realized my mistake: it’s a disaster. Aimless and meandering, there’s no story here, and Peter Jackson and his usual writing team – Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens – were never able to find the movie in Alice Sebold’s best seller about the murder of 14 year old Susie Salmon in 1973. Instead they found an excuse for tons of art design and boatloads of pointless FX that feels emotionally unconnected from anything happening in the rest of the film. Well, unconnected except that the big FX sequences are afterlife reflections of things in Susie’s life, presented with all the subtlety of a short story written by a particularly precocious grade schooler.
There are two fairly distinct movies happening in The Lovely Bones, and rarely do the twain meet until the very end when a voice over spells out the lunkheaded thematic connection between the two. In a potentially interesting movie a suburban family deals with the loss of the oldest daughter, while slowly coming to realize her murderer lives right next door. In the other movie a recently dead girl prances around ‘the in-between,’ a sort of vestibule before Heaven, because she isn’t quite ready to let go of her very unfinished life and those she’s left behind. It’s the kind of ‘in-between’ where a snow-globe penguin that the camera portentously zooms in on in the opening of the film is represented in the very landscape, where Susie’s father’s boat-in-bottle models appear larger than life and crash against a rocky shore.
Sadly the movie never comes down on one side or the other, leaving both sides feeling underdeveloped and pointless. Susie’s family montages their way through grief-stricken months, while Susie strolls in front of green screened vistas until the movie’s ready to spoonfeed her some closure. On Earth we get glimpses of what the family is going through, and every time you begin to get sucked into that story (through no help of the extraordinarily terrible acting of Mr. Mark Wahlberg, who is in full The Happening mode), Jackson switches gears and hurls you into the ‘in-between’ where Susie is doing things that have no bearing on what we were just watching. And then, just as you’re settling into the idea of watching a dead 14-year old girl come to very, very slow grips with her own demise, we’re back on Earth. In the final act of the film there is a tiny amount of crossover between these two films, as the things that happen in one impact the other, but by then caring was no longer an option.
Caring was never easy for me in The Lovely Bones. There’s the basic human caring – in a suspension of disbelief way – about a murdered girl and her bereaved family. But there are no characters to hang on to here; Susie is almost an abstract concept for most of the film, while the surviving family members never get the chance to step up and become people. They’re reduced to their one-note reactions to Susie’s death – dad is driven to the point of obsession to figure out whodunnit, while mom simply can’t deal. Life is tough for the Salmons after Susie’s death, and it’s made tougher by the fact that her body is never found, denying them closure. But it’s only the loss of Susie that impacts them. Spoilers ahead: When the mother, played by Rachel Weisz, leaves the family there’s barely a ripple among the kids. What’s it like losing first your sister and then your mom? Peter Jackson’s not really interested in that – anything that doesn’t play right into Susie’s murder is elided.
There’s an explanation you could make for that – namely that Susie is narrating, and so her focus on Earthly events will be dictated by how much they’re about her. It’s a shitty explanation, though, and it’s one that robs the film of weight and drama. Spoilers: The idea that a mother would leave her other two children because she is so destroyed by the murder of her oldest is both terrible and realistic, but when it’s fobbed off in a narrated sequence, it’s entirely undramatic. Showing and not telling is the oldest cliche in the film world, and The Lovely Bones keeps telling when it should be showing.
The two narratives sort of stumble along, neither feeling particularly urgent. There’s certainly no ticking clock in either story, although the Earth story tries to be a detective thriller for about twelve minutes. Obviously a movie doesn’t need a ticking clock to create drama, but it does need some feeling of forward momentum. Neither narrative has that momentum; the film doesn’t give any character a feeling of progress until the end, when everything needs to wrap up. And then that progress feels sudden and mostly unearned. Spoilers again: It’s bad enough when the mother leaves the family and the film glosses over the emotional impact, but then it has her show back up and again glosses over it all.
There’s an explanation for all of that as well. The film’s half-baked concepts of the afterlife include the New Agey idea that Susie can influence the living simply by being unwilling to let go. As she gets closer to accepting her death, so do they. But by keeping the two halves completely apart, Jackson robs the film of a feeling of connection. Susie’s exploits – rolling green hills and disco dancing montages included – are totally separate from what’s happening on Earth. In fact the fantasy world in which she lives, a fantasy world populated with head-smackingly obvious correlations to what she knew in life (or at least in five previous scenes where the camera would linger on an item), keeps her pretty busy. The narration tells me that she’s watching her family on Earth, but the pictures show me a girl running through grassy meadows and putting on a fashion show.
Saoirse Ronan is Susie Salmon; the young Irish actress has striking features and expressive eyes, all the better to look around at the CGI bullshit populating most of her scenes. Ronan is fine in the scenes when Susie is alive, but once Susie dies the character just floats away, and she doesn’t seem to know what to play. More interesting is her narration, delivered in a knowingly sad fashion; I’d listen to an audio book of The Lovely Bones read by Ronan.
The rest of the Salmon family is a mixed bag. Wahlberg, woefully miscast as the dad, is often laughably bad. Rachel Weisz has a character whose character has been stripped away (after seeing the movie I learned about the book and discovered that much of the mother’s arc was removed. Even without having read the book I felt that). and while she’s always fine she’s not playing much of anything. The Salmon kids are okay as well, even though the youngest seems to have a never-mentioned disease that keeps him from growing during the two year span covered by the movie.
The best member of the family is Susan Sarandon as the grandmother. A bolt of electricity in her polyester swinging granny outfit and her helmet of hair, Sarandon’s character is a mess, but the mess who holds the family together. She drinks too much, smokes too much and can’t keep a house (we learn this in one of the film’s many montages. This movie has a Rocky intensity of montages), but she’s got some kind of energy. Sarandon embraces both of the character’s dimensions and makes her fun.
The Lovely Bones has one great performance in it, and it comes from an almost unrecognizable Stanley Tucci. Playing Mr. Harvey, the single, dollhouse building murderer down the street, Tucci simmers in genteel evil, slowly raising the volume on his performance until he feels like he belongs in a David Lynch suburbia. It’s not just a style that Tucci is playing; the further Harvey gets from his last murder the more the need to kill again rises up in him. He can hold on to the moment of Susie’s rape and death for only so long before he needs something fresh. Tucci escalates as the film goes on, slowly coming to a creepy boil, smiling through big fake teeth. He’s everybody your parents warned you about, even though your parents didn’t know they were warning you about the nice man down the street.
Weirdly, Harvey is the only character in the movie. It’s like the genre director inside Peter Jackson is alive and well and it’s the murderer he understands more than the sad family or the dead girl. Harvey isn’t sympathetic by a longshot – there’s absolutely no attempt to make the man understandable or forgivable – but he is complete, and feels real, and feels like he has an interior life beyond whatever Susie is narrating about him at the moment.
This review has taken me some time to write, because what is wrong with The Lovely Bones is so enormous that it’s hard to get it all into perspective. But it’s the enormity that’s part of the problem; Jackson and his co-writers have taken what is manifestly a small, intimate story and blown it up into something unwieldy. He’s done that instead of finding the heart of The Lovely Bones; the film feels like an adaptation of something sprawling because it’s so rushed. Every story beat is given in narration, every character moment comes in a montage. You feel like Jackson was adapting another trilogy and that he needed to give fans every touchstone moment they craved, all at the expense of a film narrative.
But it’s the movie’s out of whack scope that truly kills it all. Susie is lost in the bloated CGI landscapes, and her connection to Earth and her family is totally ruined by focusing on confectionary effects. It seems like no one sat back and asked themselves ‘Do we really need a tree whose leaves all turn into birds (just like ones on dad’s study wall!) and fly away?’ and simply spent days upon days rendering the effect. It looks nice – most of the FX look nice – but it means nothing beyond cheap, simplistic symbolism. And even the film’s more sexual symbolism – big phallic lighthouses and blooming roses (roses that bloom beneath a frozen lake, an image that looks like the literalization of the purple prose of a romance novel about a woman having her sexuality reawoken) – comes up flat when Jackson renders the story’s darker edges dull.
There are some serious spoilers ahead. Skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoilers: Susie isn’t just murdered by Mr. Harvey, she’s raped, although you wouldn’t really know it from the film. In the beginning Grandma Sarandon is telling Susie about her first kiss, which came at the lips of a grown man, and there’s a terrible sense of ironic doom – we know that Susie’s first kiss won’t be with Ray, the beautiful Indian boy in her class, but with the comb over wearing creep next door. Except that doesn’t happen, and the sexual component of the crime is pretty much made subtextual. I understand that there’s some fear of including child rape in a PG-13 movie, but the film ruins itself along the way. See, in the movie we discover that Susie has been hanging around just to get her kiss from Ray, a kiss she gets by possessing a psychically sensitive girl (see, I told you the metaphysical stuff is half-assed), but in the book it’s an actual fuck she’s been waiting for. And there’s something more potent about that – the tragedy of Susie’s death isn’t that her life was taken (“Everybody dies,” we’re told in the film), it was that her innocence was taken, and having sex with Ray allows her to reclaim her own deflowering. It’s an aspect that I learned about after seeing the film, but it’s something that felt missing even on a blind viewing. Without this element Susie’s inability to come to grips with her situation boils down to wanting a first kiss, something that feels really simplistic and silly when played out against the cosmological backdrop of the story. But when it’s all about her repairing the damage Harvey did to her, it becomes deeper and more meaningful.
The Lovely Bones is a dreadful slog of a film, a movie that is arrhythmically paced while also being completely rushed. Nothing connects and no emotions are given the time to breathe before being shuffled aside for a Weta lightshow. Some stories need to be told on a small, personal level. This was one of them. If only Peter Jackson had understood that.
3 out of 10