Peter Jackson’s first feature since 2005’s remake of “King Kong” is, contrary to first impressions, not so much a departure from that picture. The former gross-out horror auteur-turned Oscar-winning director of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy has always had a special knack for visual touches. From schlocky blood and guts to giant talking trees to skyscraper-sized apes fighting dinosaurs, Jackson’s films are always interesting to look at. “The Lovely Bones,” adaptated from Alice Sebold’s beloved novel of the same name, carries on that proud tradition. It is indeed visually quite lovely, even if the bones of the story can’t quite carry film.
After being brutally murdered, young Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, “Atonement”) crosses over to the other side. She doesn’t find the classical Heaven or Hell she was expecting, in part, because she’s trapped in a type of purgatory called the “in between.” It is from this striking fantastical world that she is tormented with visions of her grieving family and haunted by intimate retrospectives on her killer and the events surrounding, and including, her murder.
Here is a film that will fool a great number of casual film-goers into believing it is a great picture. The story is tragic, the subject matter is inherently emotionally powerful, and Jackson’s signature visual virtuosity is almost breathtaking enough to overpower any flaws that may reveal themselves to discerning viewers. It is certainly a joy to look at, but its problems are many and undeniable.
Foremost among them is the fact that Susie, our clear heroine, is resigned to mere spectator status. She is dead. What effect she has on the physical world is very minimal, which poses a myriad of problems considering the story is told from her perspective. Attempts are made to create a parallel story in which she must learn to accept her death and internalize her parents’ love before she can crossover into Heaven. Unfortunately too little time is spent developing this narrative and it loses out to the pseudo-mystery thriller surrounding her killer that occupies the bulk of the film. We’re left with a heroine who not only doesn’t do anything heroic, but is physically incapable of really doing anything, except for a few instances of communication with the physical world that occur only where convenient.
The performances leave much to be desired. Mark Wahlberg (“The Departed,” “The Happening”) and Rachel Weisz (“The Brothers Bloom,” “The Fountain”) play Susie’s grief-stricken parents. Their repeated scenes of over-the-top mourning and love-hate encounters with the local police devolve into laughable melodrama. Their characterizations, along with an ill-advised turn from Susan Sarandon as the crass grandmother, undercut what is at times an elegiac and touching examination of the parent-child relationship. Stanley Tucci delivers the one redeeming performance as the unspeakably wretched killer.
One bright spot in this tug-o-war between Susie’s purgatory existence and her former life is the explanation of just where exactly this “in between” is. We’re allowed to slowly discover the intricacies of this strange and beautiful place right along with her. Before she becomes fully aware of her death there is a sequence that follows Susie’s frantic efforts to make it back home and tell her parents what had happened. She makes it there safe and sound, but oddly finds herself all alone. She then realizes that she has died and that it is only her spirit that has escaped. The “in between” is represented as not necessarily a physical location, but as a different dimension of sorts that occupies the very same space that we presently inhabit. The concept is interesting and is explored in a believable and unique way.
“The Lovely Bones” is entertaining enough. It rarely drags and features some genuinely awe-inspiring imagery, but its poor performances and critical issues surrounding an all but inert lead character arrest its otherwise compelling themes.