The Lovely Bones: Despite Flashes of Genius, These Bones Barely Fit Together
This is the hardest type of movie to review. I’ve been avoiding writing it for a while now, and can’t any longer. The simple truth is that there are many reasons to recommend The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Alice Sebold’s hit novel. Some of the best scenes I saw in cinemas all year are within this film. Also, I’m still haunted by the absolutely terrifying performance of Stanley Tucci as the villainous neighbor. Look, Peter Jackson handles the material expertly, putting together scenes with a sure hand, and creating a very unique visual style for the film that varies between religious supernatural fantasy and dark disturbing thriller. Unfortunately, while these styles might blend when separated by pages, they are a jarring mix when put together on celluloid. Furthermore, the supernatural moments fail to truly capture us the majority of the time, whereas every single moment of the thriller storyline is compelling and suspenseful. It’s an ambitious project, completely worth seeing… but these bones are only very intermittently lovely.
Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is dead. This is no spoiler, she tells you right away. She was a young teenage girl in the 1970s, with loving parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz), a younger sister (Rose McIver), and a crush at school (Reece Ritchie) who she just discovered likes her back. She never gets to meet up with him, however. She was the target of George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a serial murderer/rapist who finds a young girl, becomes obsessed with her, meticulously plans a safe place to do his evil, and gets away with it every time. When Susie dies, the story splits into two– one half of the film follows the family as they try to cope with Susie’s death and discover her killer, and the other is the journey Susie takes in the “in-between,” a magical world where she watches her family’s efforts and tries to help in any way she can.
Peter Jackson fills the in-between with fantastic imagery from Susie’s life, and it all looks… well, like the fantasy world of a teenage girl in the 1970s. It’d be easy to find this tacky, but I found the visuals appropriate even if most of them didn’t emotionally connect with me the same way his effects in King Kong and the Lord of the Rings trilogy did. Certain moments of imagery are quite powerful. The scene immediately following Susie’s death where she enters a white room filled with very disturbing images is shocking and uncomfortable, with the cleanliness of the room around the images adding to the horror.
Jackson is also an expert at the art of visual storytelling. The best scenes have very little dialogue. One scene tracks a charm bracelet that George took from Susie’s body and kept with him. When the police come to interview him, and he sees that the charm bracelet is displayed conspicuously, the scene becomes an exercise in suspense, as George attempts to quell the suspicions of the cops while subtly attempting to obtain the charm bracelet before it’s noted. In another scene, Susie’s dad suspects George of killing her, so he goes to George’s house and helps him build a hut for hunting. As they have casual conversation, Jackson focuses on the stares exchanged between the father and George. Eventually, they stop talking and just start looking. The father knows. Then George knows he knows and tries to hide it. It’s too late. George bails on the situation. This entire story is told solely with the eyes of Mark Wahlberg and Stanley Tucci. It’s an exciting scene, with terrific performances and perfect execution.
Truly, the thriller elements are the parts of the film that really elevate this movie from beautiful mess to ambitious near-miss. There’s a scene late in the film involving a character breaking into George’s house (again, conducted in silence) that is perhaps the most suspenseful scene in any film I saw all year. Stanley Tucci received a much-deserved Oscar nomination for this film, and if it wasn’t for Christoph Waltz, I would absolutely put him at the head of the pack of nominees. You’ve never seen him this way– so creepy, so unsettling, and so unabashedly lost in this dark, horrifying character. The fantasy elements are confusing and so full of CGI that they mostly just exist, but Saoirse Ronan continues to be truly the best actress in her age range working today. Her eyes are as expressive as Elizabeth Taylor’s, and I can’t wait to see the way her career takes shape.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for most of the performances. Rachel Weisz, so good in this year’s The Brothers Bloom, is given very little character to work with, so her existence in the film is more distracting than anything else. She manages to be heartbreaking sporadically, but the mother has a separate plotline that could not be less interesting. Susan Sarandon plays the wacky grandmother there to help sort out the family after the post-death chaos, but her antics, while welcome relief from the horror to some degree, seem pulled from some other broad comedy. Finally, Mark Wahlberg continues to be one of the most frustrating actors working today. We’ve seen from films such as Boogie Nights, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, and The Departed that Wahlberg is capable of delivering an emotional and exciting performance. However, when he phones it in, he doesn’t just phone it in– he uses a tin can attached to a string. While in certain scenes, such as the confrontation I described earlier, Wahlberg hits a home run, there are so many examples in this film where Wahlberg not only isn’t believable as a father… he isn’t believable as a human being existing in a story. His eyes just go dead and his dialogue goes completely stilted. If it weren’t for one or two good scenes, I would say his performance is bad enough that it merits being labeled a disaster.
At the end of the day, Jackson does a very admirable job with a book adaptation that probably was an impossible task to begin with. When reading a book, your imagination does the job of dictating the tone, the imagery, the style of the world they live in, not to mention the pace at which the story moves along. If it gets too intense, you put it down at the end of the chapter, and you can pick it back up later, or you can stop reading to go get a beverage and pick the book back up after. A book is a movie in your imagination that you can pause, rewind, and fast forward at will, and visually can appear however is most pleasing to you. A movie rolls forward without ceasing and must have a unique style and consistent imagery. When the two different halves of your story don’t necessarily mesh into a whole in the transition between artistic mediums, one half is obviously going to be stronger than the other. Unfortunately for Jackson’s budget, the part he spent by far the most money on was the less indelible. A film divided against itself can’t stand, but The Lovely Bones never really falls either. It’s got too many good moments to simply cast aside, but the bones don’t fit together perfectly.