“I remember being really small,” says Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). “Too small to see over the edge of the table.” As she tells you what she remembers, you see her—small and peeping over a table edge. She’s looking at a snow globe, where a snowman stands alone. “I worried for him,” she says, even as her dad, Jack (Mark Wahlberg) reassures her. “He has a nice life, he’s trapped inside a perfect world.”
Ah, foreshadowing. How neat and clever and constraining it can be. This start of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones is indicative of the troubles to come, as the film makes awkwardly literal the fantasy spun in Alice Sebold’s strange, provocative, and poetic novel. Speaking from beyond her grave—speaking from a “perfect world” where she does indeed feel trapped—14-year-old Susie here recalls herself younger and also observes her family and friends struggling to live without her. Her absence is made more painful by the fact that she was brutally abused and murdered by a neighbor, George (Stanley Tucci), who remains free and essentially unsuspected in rural Pennsylvania. Though her parents don’t know this and continue to live next door, Susie recounts the details of the crime for you, and the movie offers apt fragments: the dark corners of a death chamber George has built beneath a cornfield, horrific close-ups of toys he’s collected to seduce her into entering the place, and agonizing close-ups of her face as she realizes what’s about to happen.
Susie’s memories are tinged with grief and frustration, anger and regret. This combination famously resonated for the 2002 novel’s post-9/11 readers. Back in 1973, Susie despairs over missing those John Hughes-y movie experiences she hoped to have—in particular her first kiss with unspeakably pretty and vaguely “exotic” classmate Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie)—and she worries for her survivors. Her father is beside himself, holing up in her bedroom and collecting boxes of evidence (he’s an accountant, so he pours through suspects’ financial records in hopes of finding clues). He complains that the detective, Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli), is not attending to the case, while her mother, Abigail (Rachel Weisz), finally leaves home altogether, heading out to California to pick oranges (her deep anguish and sense of abandonment by her husband is reduced to a couple of images: her departure in a cab and her happy-work in sunshine and a stylish hat).
If the movie flails when trying to represent the adults’ responses to Susie’s murder, it nearly drowns when it comes to figuring the In-Between. Here Susie gambols with hedge-cut animals, fluffy clouds, and a new friend, Holly (Nikki SooHoo), watches Ray waiting for her at the mall gazebo, and even finds herself inside a mutating, increasingly un-lovely version of that same gazebo. Though Susie takes some time to understand where she is—the dimensions of the afterlife being rather large and, in this instance, massively and mostly unconvincingly CGI-ed—she returns regularly to the world she’s left behind, more or less willing her dad to know her killer’s identity. (Her narrations of his potential meaning are less than nuanced: “He was an animal, faceless, infinite.”)
Jack’s obsessiveness takes tolls, not only on Abigail, but also on Susie’s younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver), a hardworking middle school athlete who both resented and adored her older sister. After the trauma, she’s trying both to secure her own identity and solve her sister’s murder (if only to get her father back). This leads to some tensions that feel tacked-on, so Susie’s various emotional strands might begin to come together, however inelegantly. That these strands are embodied by the living—even if they don’t know it—is not an especially innovative way to think about the effects of traumatic loss, but it does provide a narrative structure. Susie is the plot’s glue as much as its protagonist, and the film is best served when she stops narrating and just looks, her face pale and freckled, her blue eyes wide, sometimes afraid and sometimes discerning.
Her gazes direct the film’s most compelling scenes (which are definitely not the lumbering afterlifey effects). As she watches George mutter through his days, clip his roses and build his next trap for the next victim, the film ponders the existence of a broadly consequential “evil” by way of its utter banality. George is a dismally ordinary man, as are his pursuers. While the film suggests the universe conjures its own sort of payback system, that knowledge is only available to the dead (and you, of course). Survivors struggle on, lonely and dissatisfied, with the exceptions granted by the “lovely bones,” the network of connections forged by shared heartache.
In part that network is initiated in Susie’s self-documentation. Given a camera just weeks before her death, she takes photos relentlessly, producing a shoebox full of film rolls that her parents at first can’t imagine affording to develop. Once she’s gone, Jack decides to take the rolls in to the shop at the rate of one a month, honoring a “deal” he made with Susie when she was alive. when it remembers to not this process, the movie uses it to draw out a vague suspense: when will Jack finally see the photo of her killer and recognize it as such? When will George recognize that he has been recognized?
If it’s a tension that actually goes nowhere, the idea is a good one, that Susie’s photos might reveal or offer a story, if not evidence, that they might be interpreted and seem a sign, even if they’re not precisely what they seem. In the photos, all impromptu portraits and spontaneous poses, dogs and shoppers and trees and a killer, the film alludes to its greater potential. That is, the ways that memories—preserved and not, reshaped and unshapely—construct childhood, after the fact.