The Lovely Bones is not a movie; at least not in the sense you and I think of one. It has no coherence, no idea of what it’s doing, what its purpose is. It barely has a plot. I’m still not sure if it has any scenes, whatsoever.
What The Lovely Bones does offer, however, is a tangled marsh of unfocused emotion, unclear characters and uninspired dreamscapes, all of which sum up to make a moving picture, yes, but a movie? No.
Adapted from the novel by Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones is about a girl, Susan Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), who is unable to move on in the afterlife following her early slaying at the age of 14. As Susie looks back on the happenings of earth after her death, we follow the Salmon family in grief, the crush she left behind and her at-large killer as he avoids police, wallows satisfyingly in the memory of his deed and finds his next victim.
Director Peter Jackson paces this story in an assuming and thoughtless manner. Instead of giving due time to the more complicated and emotional sequences in Susie’s heaven and of real time, he spends a vast amount of effort splicing bits and pieces of repeated images together to the tune of Susie’s narration. This creates a tension not between characters and themes within the movie, but between the viewer and the film, in which the film grinds against the viewer, creating a desperate situation where the viewer is nearly forced into cardiac-arrest.
And this is not the mesmerizing and satisfying contention between film and viewer, the kind that one feels compelled to enter and to conquer. The Lovely Bones is the film equivalent of a 3-year-old in the toy section of Target. Dragging its feet the whole way through, it’s all one can do to heave it forward from its collar until finally, just as the exit is in sight, it sits down. Any lesser a parent than I would have left it be.
As if Jackson forgot that motion pictures have any time constraints (and with his track record, it would seem he has), the director lavishly spends a third of the film tip-toeing to Susie’s murder. Here’s a lesson: When your audience knows what happens at the end, best not crawl your way there. At some point well into the film, anticipation dies abruptly, replaced only with boredom. If it weren’t for the ulcer growing in my gut, I would have entered my own dreamlike state, in which I would have killed Susie myself and gotten it over with.
The film is also confused as to whom its intended for. While it serves up a heavy dosage of teenage girl romance, its narrative center—the rape and murder of a 14-year-old—heavy in its own right, is accompanied by gruesome and disturbing imagery (although at times it feels like you’re watching a Dateline reenactment).
The Lovely Bones feels like it set out to be a soft and delicate artpiece, something smaller, something more targeted than Jackson’s next latest projects, but its attention was diverted and its scale enhanced through its scatter-brained portrayal of Susie’s afterlife, not to mention its genre-bending depiction of Susie’s murderer.
Overwhelmed by how much it wanted to show us, The Lovely Bones assumes audiences are as eager to see it as its creators were in making it; the film wants so bad to tell us this story that it ends up an exasperated juvenile: “And then this happened, and then this, and then this part is my favorite!”
The performances of 15-year-old Saoirse Ronan and Stanley Tucci are shamefully wasted by The Lovely Bones. Ronan shows an impressive range throughout the film, and watching her contained terror in a scene opposite her murderer, Tucci, is heartbreaking and powerful. Tucci gives an equally impressive performance, although the role is a straightforward and stereotypical one.
Susan Sarandon and Mark Wahlberg round out the cast, giving the film star power that doesn’t fail to amuse, even if that’s all it does.
The Lovely Bones, like its Susie Salmon, is one stuck in the “inbetween.” Inbetween age groups. Inbetween genres. Inbetween purposes. So bent on sharing Sebold’s vision with us, Jackson would have better accomplished his wish if he would have simply filmed himself reading the book.