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Non-Review Review: The Lovely Bones

There are somethings you can’t put a positive spin on. The rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old girl is one of those things.

A little too lovely...

I have a fairly fundamental problem with The Lovely Bones, as offered by director Peter Jackson. I don’t speak as someone who has read the book, just seen the film – so my comments are confined to this particular adaptation. There’s just something inherently crass and tasteless about the execution of this story of Suzie Salmon, trapped in a world between heaven and earth as her killer goes about his business and her family implodes. Jackson is, of course, the visionary mind behind The Lord of the Rings and – let’s be honest – is a master of the stylised visuals. Everything here is presented as crisp and golden, like some sort of nostalgic trip down memory lane – and I’m not just talking about the beautiful limbo sequences.

The scenes set in the real world are self-consciously stylised, with dead corn scattered across the landscape where Suzie will be murdered. Her death scene is backlit by what seem to be search lights peering through the tree line, as if the event were being lit up like a sporting event. The music is schmaltzy, calling to mind the score of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, with lots of elevated chords. Shots are beautifully staged, and the camera sweeps around the landscape. The problem is that this is a story about a predatory paedophile who meticulously and brutally murders a young girl.

However, my problem is more fundamental than the stylistic elements employed. There’s just something inherently wrong with the way the story stages her death. We’re presented with Suzie securing her first date with a boy she’s been crushing on (he even tells her she’s “beautiful”), her parents are celebrating being “fair” about the price of her camera hobby and there’s even a ridiculously cliché shot of her kicking an errant football back to those playing on a pitch – all before her death. The set-up screams, “Isn’t this just extra-sad now that her life is in perfect shape?” All art is emotional manipulation of the audience, but here it just feels so… blatent.

And then she dies. And she goes to limbo and… it is – to quote her – “my own perfect world”. Cue montage of Suzie and her new deceased playmate frolicking and laughing amid copious amounts of CGI. Well, at least she can take some comfort in the fact that she gets to play in physically impossible surroundings after her death, right? There is no indication of the kind of horror that has been inflicted upon her – in fact, the film is willfully silent on the matter. It very much feels like the film wanted to gloss over the particulars of how they got to this wonderful fantasy creations – perhaps the notion is that exploring the event or its consequences in any real depth would unsettle the audience and prevent them from joining in Suzie’s super-happy-funtime.

I don’t know. Maybe the movie was attempting to offer a way to explore what kids think of the concept of “death”“gone” and “lost” are two synonoms offered by the younger characters – like a modern iteration of a Grimm fairytale, where the big bad wolf stands in for other concepts we aren’t entirely comfortable discussing. I am not convinced. Like My Sister’s Keeper, the movie is intent on sticking a “happy ever after” on events which don’t get to have a happy ever after – it’s patronising to the audience. The crux of the storyline is a horrible, stomach-churning and bone-chilling act by a complete monster, but we spend most of the film learning how everything is gonna be okay. That’s the worst kind of lie – things like that don’t get to be made okay. In the end we can rest easy because her ghost gets that one kiss she always wanted.

Not withstanding my problems with the core of the film, it just isn’t a particularly well-told story. I will give credit to Jackson’s visuals as incredible – they are, in their own way, magical – but they can’t hide a poorly-conceived story. Pondorous expository voice-over is the order of the day, as Suzie recounts the events around her death. Indeed, most of the impact of her death – the falling apart of her family, for example – gets so little development and screentime that it feels almost like she’s narrating a slideshow rather than sharing a story. In fact, I suspect a great deal of material was left on the cutting room floor – events come out of nowhere in this film, which is odd, given those events are meant to form the emotional core of the story.

The cast do okay, but there aren’t characters here. There are barely event archetypes present. Mark Wahlberg is the obsessive father. Susan Sarandon is the quirky alcoholic granma. Rachel Weisz is the… undefined mother. Saoirse Ronan does fairly well with a script that, to be frank, does her no favours. Only Stanley Tucci is exceptional – playing the predator in question. Of course, he is every cliché in the book (although he falls under the radar because nobody knew what a sex offender looked like in the seventies), but Tucci makes his character unsettling and creepy – his transformation is amazing. It’s just a shame he has nothing to work with – he might as well be a gruffalo or a dragon as a predatory child killer.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the flaws with the movie (which is adapted from a much beloved book) arise from the rules of Hollywood economics. I’m assured that the book was aimed at adults, and perhaps felt comfortable exploring mature themes in depth, whereas the film has a wax-on wax-off shine which seems almost targetted towards the Twilight fans out there. You can almost intuite the thought process of the study executive put in charge of the process: “Those people dig vampires, right? Ghosts should be right up their demographic!”

The Lovely Bones is visually lovely. Perhaps that’s the problem. There should be nothing lovely about it.

9 Responses

  1. I read the book in preparation of seeing this movie, and I will say that movie doesn’t really go away from what the book says. Everyone knew going in that this would be a very hard book to adapt.

    I’m still up in the air about this movie. I think it’s definitely one of those movies that will take several viewings and some good aging before people realize that it’s better than they had thought.

    What gets to me is that criticize Jackson for the length of all his movies, and then when he decides to cut one down to a decent length, they say its underdeveloped. Hopefully that doesn’t sound like an attack on you Darren, but that’s what I get from reading most people’s reviews. I agree that the seperation of the family was severely underdeveloped, but I’m not sure how much of Suzie’s narration/ “in-between” time you can chop out. It’s her story.

    • No, I understand where you’re coming from with the Jackson criticism, but I think the only movie of his I’ve heard described as overlong was King Kong. Even with the Extended Cuts of The Lord of the Rings, people couldn’t get enough. I just think that King Kong was a little over indulgent and padded with surplus, as opposed to it being a general criticism of Jackson (I know ever discussion seems to suggest Jackson’s career began with the lord of the Rings, but I don’t think The Frighteners or Braindead were excessively long by any standard).

  2. Wow. I didn’t expect you to like it, it seems me, Red and a few others were the only ones who did (and the tongue lashing via Ebert did not help). I actually don’t think they’re trying to put a schmaltzy happy ending on it, it’s not a vengeance story – it’s about a girl coming to grips with being murdered before her life has started and about her family coming to grips. I like the brightness contrasting with the obvious dourness and I like so many of Jackson’s choices (the way he first shows the murder is just excellent for me). It has its issues, the character development does struggle particularly in the middle but Saoirse avoids any pitfalls and really puts in my favourite “child” performance of the last decade.

    • I had a read of Ebert’s review there after you flagged it, and it seems that we’re on the same page.

      I agree with you it’s not a vengeance story, but the movie seems to really want to paint it as such – indeed, the fate of the villain of the piece was actually rendered even more graphic when test audiences stated that they didn’t think it made him suffer enough, coupled with the fact that Stanley Tucci is just the best actor on screen (which just draws the audience’s focus to him). The movie’s only real dynamic plot thread isn’t Susie coming to terms with her death or her family moving on (in fact, it seems like her family got the wrong end of the film editing stick), but the one surrounding her murderer. He’s the character we see in depth and the only one who really moves at all over the course of the film.

  3. Such a good, affecting book. Such a God-awful adaptation. Stanley Tucci was great though. That’s it.

  4. My spin on this movie is pretty positive- I also enjoyed the afterlife imagery in Contact. Concerning ‘Lovely Bones, I thought the power in the movie was the fact that they did not need to show anything much of the violence and other inherent disturbing material which could have gone into the making of such a story about serial rape/ murder. But again, the story in this case is more about “oh what a world it would be, if the karmic value of any intentionally bad deed was able to be repaid.”

    • I don’t quite see it that way, though. I don’t think karma is paid – nor do I think it should be for acts like this. I just found it disturbing that the movie tried to put a bright polish on a horrible, horrible action. The lack of the “inherent disturbing material” made the film seem soft, particularly when we were assured – that despite all the ambiguously horrible stuff we’re sure did actually happen – the girl gets to play in a magical technicolour heaven. It seemed almost like Twilight – a worrying romanticised portrayal of something dark and horrible.

      Oh, in Twilight, it’s an abusive relationship I’m talking about. Not vampires.

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