I ask you to assume this train of thought because I imagine it's very similar to the one that led Peter Jackson (and, therefore, us) to The Lovely Bones. I applaud the director for wanting to scale down for a picture, yet also feel the end product suggests that he may have fundamentally changed as a filmmaker. Having gained a reputation for his visual effects, and having openly expressed his passion for them, Jackson gives in to some of his worst temptations here, only to turn a potential masterpiece into a disjointed curiosity.
Set in the 1970's, Saoirse Ronan plays Susie Salmon, a young girl who, like many, is full of hopes and dreams. These are shattered when the neighborhood pedophile, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), leads her to a vacant lot, where he's built a secret underground bunker full of things that would attract children. She climbs down the ladder, initially believing him to be good-natured. Then he starts to act weird, refusing to let her leave when she becomes a little creeped out. We don't see it happen, but Susie's voiceover confirms our worst suspicions: Harvey rapes and murders her down there.
The girl ends up in the aforementioned Netherworld. She's reluctant to move toward Heaven because her family - parents Abigail and Jack (Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg) and sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) - are having a hard time dealing with her death. Susie sends them psychic messages; they feel her presence as she attempts to help them heal. Jack in particular feels it and, for reasons he can't quite articulate, becomes very suspicious of Harvey. Susie fully intends to guide Jack to her killer, but the spirit of another child whom she befriends tries to discourage her from revenge.
The first 45 minutes of The Lovely Bones are great. Jackson sets up the scenario brilliantly. Our skin crawls as the creepy Harvey (effectively played by Stanley Tucci) preys on this girl. The long-ish scene in the bunker is tense, and icky, and nerve-wracking. In every sense, you feel the horrific reality that one bad adult can quickly snatch all the innocence away from a child. Moreover, Jackson never actually shows the crime, allowing our minds to fill in the blanks which, of course, is always worse than actually seeing it.
The last 30 minutes are also great. There is a scene in which Lindsey breaks into Harvey's house, looking for evidence of her father's suspicions. While she's rooting around in his bedroom, the creep comes home. This is Jackson's master class in building suspense. He builds the sequence carefully, allowing the tension to ratchet up to the point where we can't take it anymore - and then he just keeps going. It's solid, assured filmmaking.
The problem with The Lovely Bones is the middle 45 minutes, which essentially consist of Susie exploring her netherworld. Jackson pulls out all the visual effects stops here. There's a shot of a landscape where we can see all four seasons occurring at the same time. There are shots of people and flowers reflecting in endless pools of water, and of a large colorful orb floating around, and of expansive fields, and of magical transforming trees. This is the wrong choice, because it pulls us out of what is otherwise a very emotional story. Tonally, it’s completely at odds with the raw, hard-hitting approach of the beginning and the end.
During this second act, Jackson piles on the FX so heavily that it becomes downright weird. One senses that he’s more interested in playing around in his own personal effects company than in choosing the approach that is right for the story he’s trying to tell. Should Susie’s netherworld have a distinct visual style that is different from the rest of the picture? Absolutely. Should it look like she died and went to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory? No.
Another misstep is bringing in Susan Sarandon (as Susie’s take-charge grandmother) for comic relief. This is a story about a girl who is raped and murdered; do we really have to sit through a semi-slapstick “cleaning the house” music montage?
These flaws aside, enough about The Lovely Bones worked for me that I’m willing to give it a mild recommendation. The last act gets things back on track, which at least semi-redeems the director’s bizarro special effects tangent. That said, this is minor-league Peter Jackson. It’s not in the same class as the Lord of the Rings pictures or Heavenly Creatures, but it is better than The Frighteners, so at least you’ve got that.
( out of four)
The Lovely Bones is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images, and some language. The running time is 2 hours and 12 minutes.
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