Making films about the “afterlife” can be tricky.
Director Peter Jackson (“King Kong,” “The Lord of the Rings”) is wrangling with this potentially divisive subject matter and the prospect of adapting a beloved book with his newest film “The Lovely Bones.” The end result is a movie that feels like several disjointed parts rather than a coherent whole.
Based on the novel by Alice Sebold, much of the film is told from the point of view of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a 14-year old girl who was raped and murdered by the most obvious serial killer ever and currently resides in “the In-between,” a shifting dreamscape of dramatic nature backgrounds that features a bunch of other serene, wandering children.
Besides this rainbow-colored CGI-filled depiction of purgatory, the palette of Jackson’s film is already overflowing with the loud fashions of the 1970s. If there were one compliment to pay the film, it would be to the art direction and director of photography Andrew Lesnie, whose visual style is transportive. The 70s “reality” in this movie is full of outward visual flourishes and stylistically similar to the In-between, making the entire movie feel like it’s really of its own time.
Then again, maybe that’s part of the problem. “The Lovely Bones” never hits hard. It is too dispassionate. It demands some very challenging and conflicting things of its audience:
It asks you to grieve with Susie’s mother (Rachel Weisz) and father (Mark Wahlberg) and yet also be at peace with poor Susie as she walks the heavens.
It asks you to follow a pervy serial killer (Stanley Tucci) who carts handmade dollhouses around at the Mall and not wonder why no one ever suspected him of anything.
It asks you to care deeply about an unlikely teen romance between Susie and a popular older kid that never quite happened.
It asks you to get involved in the domestic undoing of a family while providing, at best, a sketch of the collapse and some misguided comic relief (in the form of saucy grandmother played by Susan Sarandon).
Above all, it asks you to feel comforted.
This last part is the real failure of the film because it’s key to the entire mood of “The Lovely Bones.” Even by the end, it’s impossible to accept.
Jackson presents the police case and Susie’s father’s obsession with finding the killer as a small piece of a greater pie. Maybe it should have been the main focus. The movie could have explored grief the way “In the Bedroom” did—all shades and colors of it.
As it is, “The Lovely Bones” remains a mystery—not a mystery as in who committed the crime, but a mystery in its intended theme and why that theme didn’t unite the film at all.