One of the most difficult things about seeing a movie that’s been in theatres for a while is putting the critics’ reviews out of my mind. I love to see what the critics have to say before seeing a movie, especially if it’s a movie that I haven’t been waiting anxiously for and therefore am unsure if I really want to see it. The Lovely Bones was one of these movies. I had heard pretty terrible reviews from most critics, which made me nervous when I finally bought my ticket. I figured I’d go in, see if Stanley Tucci is really that good, and then watch something else when I got back home to rinse the bad taste out of my mouth.
But The Lovely Bones was actually a good movie; scratch that, a great movie. It is a weepie, and it does stray into saccharine sentimentality at times, but more importantly it’s a meditation on death that only Peter Jackson could deliver. Based on the novel by Alice Sebold, the film tells the story of 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saorise Ronan), who is murdered in a cornfield by one of her neighbors, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Susie watches from the In-Between, a kind of fantastic purgatory, as her family (Mark Wahlberg plays her dad, Rachel Weisz her mom, Rose McIver her younger sister and Susan Sarandon in a bit part as her grandmother) falls apart in their struggle to move on. Susie can either ascend into heaven and make letting go easier for the people she left behind or she can stay in the In-Between and watch them cling to her memory and perhaps seek revenge.
The In-Between is the kind of place that comes straight from the imagination of director/co-writer Peter Jackson, along with his WETA Workshop. It’s a beautifully-rendered, artistically magnificent world that allows Susie to explore her death and the events following it. In one particularly interesting scene, she wanders into a room to discover George in a bathtub, her blood mixed in with the mud on the floor. It’s here that she discovers her death, and her resolve to not let go of her life begins.
Ronan plays Susie with a maturity that is far beyond her years (she first proved this in her Oscar-nominated turn as Briony Tallis in 2007’s Atonement). Though her hypnotic voiceovers tended to become annoying, her onscreen performance bristled with vibrancy: she has a great career ahead of her as a leading actress, and should avoid the fate of obscurity that traps many child actors. And I will defend Wahlberg’s performance as her dad: sent to the edge of obsession, his Jack Salmon is an excellent portrait of a grieving father wishing he had his daughter back.
Tucci, though, truly shines in his creepily familiar performance as George. He plays him like the friendly man next door who’s just a little off, but not enough to notice. George is also an obsessive, a man driven by his dark urges, and what makes him so much more chilling is how perfectly he blends in with a crowd; he’s the one no one expects. The film’s treats George as the villain, who of course he is, but it never fully punishes him blatantly or immediately. As Susie notices from the In-Between, George burns on the inside, until his urges strike again.
He looks so trusting, so friendly....
One of the biggest complaints about the film is that it doesn’t depict the murder itself, but rather cuts directly to the afterlife. I, on the other hand, am glad they left her death out. Susie is dismembered and then placed in a safe, which George keeps in his house. Showing the murder and dismemberment would have felt cheap and exploitative in a film like this, and Jackson was wise to avoid it. Jackson’s direction continues to be top-notch here, and though many may argue, I don’t think he’s made a misstep yet in his post-Lord of the Rings career (in fact, King Kong was my favorite movie of 2005). Jackson’s visual flair is one of his strongest points, but similar to Quentin Tarantino, not enough is said about his gift with actors. Rarely do his films feature sagging performances, and this one is no different.
The films only weak point is that at times it can get too sentimental and verge on cheese. At some points, particularly in Susie’s voiceovers (which the film definitely could have done without), the dialogue becomes stale, the music swells with power strings, and the film loses some of its emotional punch. The film is at its best when it ruminates on the importance of letting go and moving on, though in the end, when the lights come up, it’s hard to let go of the film itself.