I have learned that in 2009, it’s better to have no expectations of a film than high ones. The year saw a parade of films I was greatly anticipating fall short of expectations, to the point that the entire year felt like one disappointment after the other at the cinema.
Alas, I have tried to learn to not follow films from pre-production through release because you only end up feeling let down when it doesn’t meet the lofty standards you have for it. I’m so glad this film wasn’t on my radar until a month ago, and even happier that it kept me on the edge of my seat the way it did.
The Lovely Bones is a film based on a book of the same title by author Alice Sebold, centered around the murder of a 14-year old girl by someone in her neighborhood who watches her family — and her killer — from the afterlife. If that sounds like heavy stuff, believe me it is.
Actress Saoirse Ronan plays Susie Salmon, the young girl who’s life is cut short and has to wrestle with her vengeance and her desire for her family to heal after the tragedy from a purgatory-esque area. If Ronan seems unfamiliar to you, you must’ve unfortunately missed her fantastic performance in 2007’s Atonement, which was widely acclaimed and even garnered her an Oscar nomination.
As Susie, Ronan breathes life into a character between life and what lies beyond, and blends them so beautifully it’s heartbreaking. Any life lost is sad, but to the degree that Susie’s young life is stolen from her is quite heart-wrenching, and Ronan plays a very sympathetic girl. Before the crime, she’s your normal 14-year old, precocious, good family life, loves photography, and has a crush on a boy. Afterward, she has to watch the agony take its toll on her family, but she also keeps that bright, hopeful outlook on the events that is actually quite inspiring for a film of this nature.
The film plays like a combination of Big Fish and Mystic River, two other fantastic films. There is the fantastical world that Susie inhabits after her death that is vividly colorful and there is also the world she was taken from, one that actually ends up dark and haunting. The key difference between this film and a film like Mystic River is that there is no mystery as to who her murderer was. We are shown the events that led to it as they happen, and are privy to the murderer’s life after the killing.
Her killer is George Harvey, played flawlessly by Stanley Tucci. This is like nothing I’ve seen from Tucci before, and he really channels Sy Parrish from One Hour Photo, but actually finds a way to make his character much creepier. It felt like Harvey was crawling under my skin at moments. Oftentimes killers in films are made to be symapthetic in a way, (Hannibal Lecter is a great example) but we never feel any sympathy for George Harvey. We see the monster in action, and we want the same vengeance Susie and her family want.
Susie’s family is comprised of top level actors Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, and Susan Sarandon, and they all play their torment in different ways. Wahlberg is the father who wants to solve the case himself (similar to Sean Penn in Mystic River) but the difference here is that Jack Salmon isn’t a career criminal. He’s an accountant, a father, and a husband, and can’t get passed his daughter’s murder until it’s solved. Weisz plays the anguished mother who deals with her issues by blowing dodge and getting away for awhile. Sarandon plays the tough grandmother who wants to take the bull by the horns and deal with it. They all play their roles well, and are completely adequate without being exceptional or particularly noteworthy.
I was very surprised after I saw the trailer for this film to learn that it was directed by Peter Jackson. I’m used to very overblown, epic feeling stuff from him, and this film is a different beast. Jackson can still show of his technical prowess, and the scenes of Susie in the afterlife are quite breathtaking. There is a scene in particular where Susie encounters a number of ships cascading on the tide. However, these ships are all in bottles (her father’s hobby), and they are crashing into the rocks as her father is actually destroying them in real life. It’s imaginative and dreamlike, but it also manages to tug on your heartstrings, something special effects rarely do.
In all honesty, the film had me from start to finish, and was a taut thriller while doing so in an unusual way. There is no mystery behind Susie’s murder. It isn’t like Zodiac or the aforementioned Mystic River where the audience is adding up the pieces to the puzzle along with the characters to lead to a thrilling conclusion where the killer’s identity becomes revealed to all. But, while experiencing Susie’s afterlife and watching everyone else try to put the pieces together, we end up with a very unique ending that was surprising to me.
It was surprising because as an avid film watcher, I expect things to be tied up nicely and wrapped with a bow for me. I don’t like it this way a lot of times, but it’s what I expect. But actually, the ending of this film surprised me in that while it does tie things up, it does so differently than expected. While portraying a theme of hope, we still get a bittersweet lump in our throats when the credits roll, even after we find out what happens to George Harvey.
This film surprised me a great deal. While at moments it’s pretty paint by numbers and basic, other times it’s breathtaking and beautiful. The performances are good with Tucci really excelling as a killer, and Peter Jackson crafts a remarkably vivid afterlife which sets the movie apart. The plot is quite simple, but the execution is complex. Getting Susie’s perspective makes the movie quite unique, and the movie excels because while it might seem typical on paper, it actually is quite different. I have never read the book so I can’t comment on if the movie lives up, or remark on what it left out, but I’ll just say that as a stand alone film it’s good.
Final Score: 8.0/10 (Great)