The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones

Film review by: Witney Seibold

It’s kind of a high concept, but one familiar to those who saw 1998’s “What Dreams May Come”: A 14-year-old girl (Saoirse Ronan) is murdered by a local serial killer (Stanley Tucci), and goes to purgatory, where she watches how her family deals with her death. Purgatory is a CGI extravaganza of fantasy images. She is able, in small ethereal ways, to contact the living, and hopes to point her father (Mark Wahlberg) to her killer so that justice may be meted out. Had it been merely a supernatural murder mystery, “The Lovely Bones” would have been a somewhat clever, if not necessarily original, thriller, and another CGI-riddled genre exercise from the lionized Kiwi director Peter Jackson. Jackson is perfectly suited to horrific fantasy tropes (most every one of his films involves ghosts or monsters), and would have been easily able to balance the violence of a girl’s death with the excitement of a murder mystery.

Unfortunately, “Bones” extends in a different direction as well. It has many, many extended scenes of meditation on death, and a lot of inner monologues and narration musing calmly on loss. As time passes, we begin to get the sense that this is less a film about cosmic justice, and more a film about the ineffable passage of time, and the causal ripples that a death can have on those left behind. This is a grand idea, and, from what I understand, is the general thrust on the original novel by Alice Sebold. Unfortunately, Jackson’s natural flair for flash and special effects offset these elements to a frustrating degree. No one can accuse Jackson of being subtle, and, unfortunately, it was a sublte, human touch these scenes required. Sebold seemed to have something poetic on her mind, and Jackson turned her poetry into a Hollywood entertainment.

What’s more, even though he is known for one of the goriest films ever made (the 1992 zombie flick “Dead Alive”), Jackson seems to have shied away from the violent, dirtier elements of the original story. This film is rated PG-13, and has no mention of the rape that features so prominently I the source material. Indeed, all sexual matters seems to have been dampened. The 14-year-old Susie is a virgin, and has developed a crush on a hot Indian boy, and has fantasies of her first kiss. She is killed before she is able to get her kiss, effectively martyring herself to the gods of banal safe teen chastity. In a story that is so clearly charged with sex, it was frustrating to see all sexual matters obviously obfuscated.

What’s more, Jackson (who also wrote, with his usual collaborators Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh) felt the need to explain everything that had happened. We have a painful moment with a psychic little brother who intones melodramatically that “Susie is in the in-between.” Jackson also gives us a young dead girl (Nikki SooHoo) who meets Susie in the afterlife to explain the groundrules. In a film with a voiceover narration, it seems extraneous to also have so much exposition.

And, breezing in from another film entirely, was Susan Sarandon as the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, domestically stunted grandmother, who is called in to look after her daughter (Rachel Weisz, looking about the same age as her daughters). The Sarandon character is strong and funny and has a wicked sense of humor, as well as some actual practical advice for the main characters. But what the Hell is this cartoonish grandmother doing in this movie? For a few surreal moment, we leave “The Lovely Bones” and enter a wacky sitcom.

Had a more restrained director who is used to real-life violence and sexuality and the effect death can have on our personal timelines handled this material – say David Gordon Green – it would have had a much stronger impact.

This is not to say that there aren’t some wonderful moment throughout “The Lovely Bones.” The scenes of Tucci meticulously planning his crimes are tense and engaging. Indeed, Tucci gives a wonderfully affected performance throughout. Sarandon was, despite the off-balance nature of her scenes, a delight. And the first scene where Susie’s ghost, standing in her killer’s bathroom as he washes the blood and dirt off of his body, while she begins to realize that she has passed onto the other side is terrifying and moving, and even kind of brilliant.

Jackson has made some wonderful genre films. If you haven’t seen his “Dead Alive,” I encourage you to find it, and revel in the cartoony brilliant of it. He seems much more comfortable, though, when he has beasts and monsters to deal with.

Published in: on December 21, 2009 at 12:11 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Wow. Sounds interesting. I just read an interview with Stanley Tucci talking about this film and how he was worried about the little girl acting opposite him while performing their scenes. Turns out she was actually worried about him! Good post.

  2. Its really bothering me that the film did not seem to pick up on Lindsey’s discovering the major piece of evidence linking Harvey as the murderer, why not? He should have been stopped from dumping the safe or at least, the police would have arrested him and found the evidence in the dump. Why did grandma not look through the notebook of Harvey’s that Lindsey handed her? It’s really killing me that the film seems so unprofessional due to this. Please somebody explain!

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