Lovely Bones, The (2009)

A major disappointment from Peter Jackson.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Dir. Peter Jackson
2009 | USA/New Zealand | Drama/Fantasy | 135 mins | 2.35:1 | English
PG13 (passed clean) for mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images, and some language

Cast: Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg, Saoirse Ronan, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon
Plot: Centers on a young girl who has been murdered and watches over her family – and her killer – from heaven. She must weigh her desire for vengeance against her desire for her family to heal.
Awards: Nom. for 1 Oscar – Best Supporting Actor
Distributor: United International Pictures

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Review #493

(Reviewed in theatres – first published 11 Mar 2010)

Spoilers: Yes

Peter Jackson’s popularity rose dramatically in 2001 when he released the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy. He followed up with two extraordinary sequels (2002, 2003) and an astounding remake of King Kong (2005). If there is a filmmaker who could take you to a distant world, a land of fantasy and horror where every image serves to placate our senses, look no further than Jackson. However, in his new film The Lovely Bones, it seems like the master of the epic Hollywood blockbuster has lost his touch.

To be fair, The Lovely Bones is not a film meant to be viewed as an ‘epic’. Neither is its plot. It is a low-key fantasy-drama with a big-name director. The storyline is adapted from Alice Sebold’s novel of the same name and centers on its lead character Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). Ronan plays a 14 year-old middle-class girl whose existence in a loving family is cruelly cut short by her psychopathic next-door neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) who leads her down to a makeshift underground hideaway and brutally rapes and murders her.

For much of the film after Susie’s death, it is split into two different worlds. One describes the afterlife Susie finds herself in, a realm between heaven and earth, as she watches from above the effects of her death on her family and her murderer (who both inhabit the ‘earthly’ world). Jackson alternates between the two worlds – fantasy and reality – and brings them together in an attempt to draw a grandiose picture of ‘life after (a) death’. Unfortunately, that attempt falls very short of what Sebold’s source material intended to deliver.

“There was one thing my murderer didn’t understand; he didn’t understand how much a father could love his child.”

How does an Academy Award-winning writer-director with so much passion about film (and with the skills to boot) suddenly make a lousy film? Short of asking Francis Ford Coppola (who made his fair share of unbelievably bad films despite helming The Godfather trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990) and Apocalypse Now (1979)) to give a plausible answer, a better explanation could be found in the question itself – too much passion, too much skill. That’s right. Only a director with (too) much passion and skill could have messed it all up.

The most glaring flaw of the film is its unevenness in tone. The alternation between the two worlds does not leave us with awe-inspiring moments (though Jackson’s portrayal of Susie’s pseudo-heaven is at the very least colorful and imaginative). Instead, it gives us a sense of void, a vacuum-like feeling that fails to make us care despite strong performances from Ronan and Tucci whom are the film’s saving grace.

If I may be kinder to Jackson, there are two standout sequences in The Lovely Bones which serve as a reminder that he still hasn’t lost his magic: First, Susie finds herself in the bathroom of a creepy house. She sees a still body lying in the bathtub with a cloth draped over the face as she tiptoes past ‘it’.  This scene jolts the memory of a similar creepy scene in another film, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), where a similarly-aged girl sees a pale-faced monster sitting motionlessly at one end of a long table filled with sumptuous food delights. An influence perhaps? Well, is it not a coincidence that Jackson earmarked Del Toro to tackle The Hobbit, an extension of the LOTR trilogy?

The other sequence is another suspenseful one involving Mr. Harvey’s discovery of Susie’s sister in his own home as she attempts to search for evidence of his heinous crime. Sound is used for startling effect as Jackson does a Hitchcock, cranking the suspense to an almost unbearable level. Even with these two finely executed sequences and the above-mentioned strong performances, The Lovely Bones still stands as a momentous flop. It is a major disappointment from someone whom we have come to revere as a master storyteller.

Grade: C-



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