The murder of a child is, without a doubt, the worst crime of all. It is shocking in its randomness, depressing in its desire to pervert innocence and destroy the joy of youth. Society usually reacts violently when such an act is committed. Laws are immediately passed, cautionary warnings are cast, and the entire populace feels complicit for its lack of attention and consideration. But back in the ’70s, when child abuse and pedophilia were well-hidden, incredibly secret shames, the disappearance of young Susie Salmon is met with familial despair, but general social ennui. In the hands of author Alice Sebold, and now Oscar winning filmmaker Peter Jackson, the horrible act is transformed into a modern day Brothers Grimm fairytale – except, in this case, the “Lovely Bones” left behind leave a scar that runs as deep as the sin itself.
Susie (a devastatingly effective Saoirse Ronan) narrates her situation from a way station between Heaven and Earth, a place of her own spiritual devising where fantasy and fact merge in a combination of cruelty and beauty. It is a limbo from which she will guide the rest of her family – dad Jack (Mark Wahlberg), mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz), and siblings Lindsay (Rose McIver) and Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale) on a quest to uncover the identity of her killer. In an unusual move, The Lovely Bones never once tries to hide the criminal’s ID. Stanley Tucci brings an Oscar worthy amount of deceptive dread to his turn as the shy quiet monster George Harvey. He too lives in his own world of internalized desire, preparing his fatal traps with an intricacy and detail he reserves for the children’s dollhouses he meticulously fabricates.
As with any fable, there is a moral and its initial ambiguity clouds Jackson’s interpretation of this material. The whole concept of the evil next door is nothing new to the post-modern movie, an entire subgenre of cinema seemingly devoted to exposing the menace buried within the standard suburban malaise. The difference here is the time frame (the polyester plaid of the Me Decade) and the manner in which Jackson envisions the afterlife. With the help of some amazing special effects and the filmmaker’s talented technical prowess, we get a world awash in pastels and personal memories, an evocative land where oversized versions of Dad’s beloved bottled ships crash against jagged shores of rocky remembrance. It’s a realm of symbols and expressive iconography, where something as sublime as a blossoming tree can be the key to uncovering a criminal – and the horrific deeds he’s responsible for.
This balancing act between fact and fiction, the reality of Susie’s death and the glimmering kaleidoscope dreamscape she exists in is off putting and unusual. It’s also the most stunning realization of the grieving process since Darren Aronofsky imagined it as a time travel triptych in The Fountain. Both films apply a similar approach to the concept of sorrow. It is seen as both a celebration of the past and an anguish of the present. It is likened to a terrible tall tale where the big bad wolf is all too real, where the end is literally a finale and there’s no such thing as happily ever after. Indeed, what Jackson is looking for in his interpretation of The Lovely Bones (and yes, lovers of the book, it does differ from Sebold’s storyline) is that place where emotion is experienced and then expelled. The more torment and anguish the Salmon family struggle through, the clearer their choices are.
That’s why the uncovering of Harvey is not the immediate concern here. Sure, we worry that the sick bastard will strike again, and we get a front row seat as his warped mind plans his next indecent act. But we also recognize the need for Susie’s father to find some peace. The murder has torn his family apart, and by bringing the responsible party to justice, he might just be able to bridge the growing gaps. Unfortunately, Jackson and his narrative aren’t about to make it easy – and oddly enough, it won’t be so neat and clean either. Indeed, The Lovely Bones is about absolution when there is really nothing to forgive, about looking beyond yourself, but no further than your front porch – or your quite neighbor’s backyard.
As he did with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Heavenly Creatures, Jackson uncovers the suspense and the horror amongst elements both ethereal and beguiling. When Susie learns the true identity of her afterlife companion, the reveal is revolting – and yet serenely elegant. Some may question the often awkward juxtaposition of childlike whimsy and vile sexual cruelty, but it’s a perfect metaphor for the acts committed by our killer. For Harvey, death is the ultimate expression of his need to connect with these comely, otherwise unavailable effigies. By destroying them, he owns them. They fuel and become part of his mental make-up, satisfying the sinister urge he has…until the itch comes back again. Between the well handled family dynamic, the growing chasm between Jack and his wife, and the arrival of comic relief in the form of boozy grandma Lynn (a glorious Susan Sarandon), Jackson juggles many thematic elements – and handles them all magnificently.
More importantly, his casting is impeccable. As the parents, Wahlberg and Weisz represent the yin and yang of guilt. He wants to be the avenger. She just wants to escape. Equally compelling is Mc. McIver, who is often the voice of reason in a situation which can’t tolerate or infer same. As the police officer charged with trying to solve the seemingly impossible case, Michael Imperioli is a solid ’70s archetype – dependable and dedicated, but limited by the technological restraints of old school police procedure. That just leaves Tucci and Ronan, and both are beyond brilliant. In the cased of the former, he must find a way to make a devil somehow acceptable. We will never root for Harvey, but we have to see how he hides his repugnance from the rest of the world. In Tucci’s subtle, unsettling turn, we get the perfect combination of everyman and malevolence. As for Ronan, she is so good as Susie, so sunny and sparkling, that her death pains us while her revelations attempt to soothe our soul.
Of course, such complicated consideration of troubling subjects is bond to be misunderstood by many in the mainstream audience. They want simple answers and tight solutions, no matter if they overlook such necessary facets as emotional distress, human hurt, and the linger effects of losing a child. Since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, many have dismissed The Lovely Bones as a bungle totally missing the point of Sebold’s novel. Of course, since it mostly follows the premise while playing with the plot, it’s almost impossible to see how that’s true. Yet Peter Jackson is no someone to undermine an author’s intent to drive his own cinematic vision. He didn’t do it with Tolkein, so the issue here appears moot. And even if he does diverge from the book’s basics, what he creates here is nothing short of a masterpiece. It might take you a while to see it, and maybe more than one viewing, but in the end, The Lovely Bones becomes a heartbreaking, harrowing expression of love and loss. In truth, what else could it be?