The Hauntingly Ethereal and Darkly Beguiling ‘The Lovely Bones’

As with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Heavenly Creatures, The Lovely Bones uncovers suspense and horror amongst elements ethereal and beguiling.

The murder of a child is, without a doubt, the most disturbing crime of all. It is shocking in its randomness and 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 lacking attention and consideration.

But back in the ’70s, when child abuse and pedophilia in America were often hidden from American discourse, 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, this vial crime is transformed into a modern-day Brothers Grimm fairytale, except, in this case, the “Lovely Bones” left behind leaves 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 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 dark fable, there is a moral to it, and its initial ambiguity clouds Jackson’s interpretation of this material. The concept of the evil next door is nothing new in post-modern film; an entire subgenre of cinema is 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, The Lovely Bones conveys 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 (2006). Both films apply a similar approach to sorrow. It is likened to a terrible tall tale where the big bad wolf is all too real, where the end of life is literally the film’s finalé. In his interpretation of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel of the same title, Jackson seeks that place where emotion is experienced and expelled. The more torment and anguish the Salmon family struggles, the clearer their choices become.

That’s why the uncovering of Harvey is not the immediate concern of The Lovely Bones. 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 Susie’s father’s need to find some peace. His daughter’s murder is tearing his family apart, and by bringing the responsible party to justice, he might be able to bridge the growing gaps. Unfortunately, Jackson and his narrative aren’t about to make it easy. The Lovely Bones is about absolution, about looking beyond yourself but no further than your front porch – or your quiet 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 yet serenely elegant. Some may question The Lovely Bones‘ awkward juxtaposition of childlike whimsy and vile sexual cruelty, but it’s a perfect metaphor for the acts committed by the criminal.

For Harvey, death is the ultimate expression of his need to connect with these comely, otherwise unavailable effigies. By destroying them, he “owns” them. Their deaths fuel and become part of his living mentality. 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.

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 McIver, who is often the voice of reason in a situation that can’t tolerate or infer the 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 brings us to Tucci and Ronan, both brilliant in their difficult roles. In the case of Tucci, he must find a way to make a devil somehow seem “acceptable”. We 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 souls.

Of course, such complicated considerations of troubling subjects are bound to be misunderstood by many. Some viewers will want simple answers and tight solutions, no matter if they overlook such necessary facets as emotional distress, human hurt, and the lingering effects of losing a child. Since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, many have dismissed The Lovely Bones as a bungle, thus missing the point of Sebold’s novel.

The film version follows the book’s premise while playing with its plot. Jackson is not one to undermine an author’s intent to drive his own cinematic vision. He didn’t do it with Tolkien or here. Even though his telling diverges from the book’s basics, what he creates is masterful. 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. What else could it be?

RATING 10 / 10