Thursday, January 21, 2010


Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones is a wonderful film. It plays the emotions in a very special way. It is not merely a special effects film; to the contrary, Jackson uses his mastery of f/x to create a vivid world that gives life to Alice Sebold's best-selling novel in a way no other filmmaker could adequately envision. The film has failed to gain traction in the awards season in spite of the Academy's expansion to ten Best Picture nominees, which is an odd omission, since Jackson is stretching his ability to tell a story of great emotion. The film is not perfect, but in that imperfection it finds a sort of messy sublimity.

The story will be quite familiar to readers of Sebold's 2002 book: Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) narrates from beyond the grave, telling the story of her murder in 1973 and its aftermath in the subsequent years. Susie is part of a loving family, with a mother (Rachel Weisz) and father (Mark Wahlberg) who care deeply, and she is entering into the years of budding sexuality, with a deep crush on an older classmate. Her life is just beginning...and then she stops to talk to her neighbor (Stanley Tucci), who invites her preview his new bunker for the local children to play. She cautiously accepts...and that is the end of Susie's life.

The conceit is that when Susie dies, she enters the "In-Between," a celestial area between this world and the next. The In-Between is wondrous and beautiful, sure, but it is also perilous. It is not a final resting place, but rather a reflection of the hopes and fears of its inhabitants. In general terms, Susie had -- to borrow a cliched colloquialism -- unfinished business. The In-Between becomes a reflection of Susie's inner turmoil, even after death. As she gazes upon her family, each member grieves in a different way. Her father gets pro-active, overtly so, in his obsession with tracking down a killer whom we know lives just across the street. Her mother, meanwhile, reverts inward, quickly tiring of her husband's antics. Their relationship crumbles as a result of their grief.

We simultaneously follow Susie's journey through the afterlife and the growing tension back here on Earth. Wahlberg's driven father becomes consumed by his investigation while Weisz's traumatized mother leaves and Susie's grandmother (Susan Sarandon, in a role shockingly overlooked for a shoo-in Oscar nod) comes to take care of the household. The parallel stories are a lot to juggle, and as a result the narrative sometimes feels messy, as if all the content overwhelms its purpose. Nonetheless, the heart of each story is compelling both separately and together.

Jackson is a filmmaker of great ambition and also great sensitivity. His version of The Lovely Bones -- derided by many as too sentimental, or inappropriately lofty, or castrated from the novel's graphic depictions of violence and teen sexuality -- is actually a more ambitious undertaking, in my opinion, than even his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yes, his take -- scripted by Jackson with longtime partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens -- focuses more on an intense emotional journey than did Sebold's novel. The film is a meditation on the grief of both those affected by death as well as the deceased, and a story of the undying celestial connection between loved ones. There is no graphic violence or bloody details, but why should there be? This film is not a police procedural or a raw psychodrama, but a lilting pondering of, more than anything, love. The search for love, the loss of love, and the discovery of new kinds of love. Jackson asks the audience to suspend their disbelief and engage their hearts. The leap is not one many wanted to make, obviously, but the experience is powerfully immersive if the viewer is open to it. The Lovely Bones the movie is different than The Lovely Bones the book, but that's okay. It is its own individual piece, a uniquely cinematic burst of emotion. Be open to it, and let it flow in.

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