The Lovely Bones

The 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 and poetic novel.

The Lovely Bones

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Saoirse Ronan, Michael Imperioli
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-12-11 (Limited release)
UK date: 2010-01-29 (General release)

"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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.