When someone is murdered, their spirit lingers on, observing and trying to influence the course of justice, a ghost seeking revenge or simply to experience the karmic balance that we hope will transpire. But what of the ghost during this period of time, what’s their experience and what if there is no peace, no justice, nothing but someone who refuses to let go, who refuses to accept that they have died?
That’s the basic story behind The Lovely Bones, an ethereal and moving film by Peter Jackson based on the best-selling book by Alice Sebold and starring the lovely and haunting Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon, the victim of the crime.
Set in the mid-1970’s, it contrasts the deep love of a father, Jack (Mark Wahlberg), against the naivity of the times, where when a child went missing no-one thought she was abducted because “people believed this sort of thing couldn’t happen.” Yet it does, and it’s the creepy but unthreatening neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) who commits the crime.
Within a few minutes, we know who the murderer is and how the crime transpired and are symbolically brought on the same journey that Susie is, stuck in the “in between” that’s not quite heaven. We hope that that George doesn’t get away with the crime and despair when everyone misses the clues he leaves.
I found some interesting parallels with the fascinating What Dreams May Come, another film that takes on the challenge of visualizing the afterlife, but The Lovely Bones stands alone as a moving exploration of karma, justice and belief. It’s an intense film though the ending was weak, but perhaps that’s the point of the story after all, that justice doesn’t come from detectives and investigations, it doesn’t even come from devoted parents, but rather from the cosmic balance of all things.
The Lovely Bones is narrated by Susie and we share her confusion about the afterlife and her frustration with things she’s missed, having been murdered at the young age of fourteen. We flip back and forth between her in the afterlife and what’s happening on Earth, where things get increasingly tense and desperate.
Cinematically, I found some of the shots effective and simultaneously self-conscious, as if testing us to see if we understand the language of cinema and get the profundity of what’s in front of our eyes. We first meet murderer George Harvey and learn he’s a dollhouse maker from the vantage point of within the doll house. A very symbolic, Hitchcockian point of view that’s repeated when detective Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli) later interviews him.
Before she’s raped and murdered (at least, in the book. In the movie she’s tricked into going into an underground cell then angrily murdered, an editorial decision that garnered director Jackson much criticism) Susie has a crush on the romantic Ray (Reece Ritchie), a senior who she fears is out of her league in the hierarchy of high school.
Susie (Saoirse Rona) and Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon) spy on the object of Susie’s crush
Jack (Wahlberg) is an accountant who also builds models, though his are an attempt to capture dreams: ships in a bottle. He’s an appealing, low-key father who is clearly in love with his daughter. Mom is Abigail (Rachel Weisz) and she’s more detached and ultimately flees the tension of a household minus Susie. Her mother, Grandma Lynn (a delightfully eccentric Susan Sarandon) is an alcoholic, perpetually-smoking presence who, in her weird way, helps the family return to some semblance or normalcy after the murder, even as they all leave Susie’s bedroom intact.
The film shows us a beautiful Technicolor afterlife, complete with dreamy visuals and saturated colors, seamlessly transitioning between seasons and environments, even sporadically bringing us deep underwater. George is stealthily and methodically destroying the evidence of the crime even as Susie tries to understand how to release her hate and complete the journey to heaven, a place where Earthly emotions are forever gone.
Susie meets Holly Go Lightly (Nikki SooHoo) who acts as her tourguide to the afterlife, a place that’s “not really one place, but not really the other place either”. She’s in the “in-between”. She still experiences much of the afterlife solo, including one powerful scene where Jack despairs, destroying the ships in a bottle he’s created as Susie sees full-size ships beached and destroyed, with massive sheets of glass around them, as she runs down the beach screaming “Dad? Dad!”
For the years that transpire between when Susie is murdered and the crime is resolved, Jack dutifully lights a candle and put it in the bedroom window, night after night after night. It begs the question: when do you give up hope, give up faith, and let the past drift away, even as it’s harrowing and traumatic?
Ultimately, The Lovely Bones is a profound movie that carries a heavy karmic storyline but suffers from an unsatisfying ending. Too heavy for American filmgoers, The Lovely Bones hasn’t fared well in the movie theater and having seen it, I can now understand why: after such an intense experience very few people would recommend it to their friends. Still, it’s worth seeing if only to see how Alice Sebold and Peter Jackson together create a vision of what has come and what will come.