Movie Review: The Lovely Bones
By Sean Collier
January 18, 2010
Much of the critical consensus on Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones has faulted the film for a somewhat cloying sentimentality that is seen as overriding the film's strengths. This analysis is not entirely without merit (the film is something of a sepia-toned tearjerker,) but represents an ignorance of the film's viewpoint. Our story, at every moment, is that of Susie Salmon, a girl who is little more than a collection of untapped emotion. Sentimentality is the only path that makes sense.
Susie, played by the supremely talented Saoirse Ronan, is murdered – distressingly, if off-screen – at the age of 14, a high school freshman and an unrepentant dreamer. In life, she fantasizes about a career as a wildlife photographer and spends long moments meditating on the dark, unmistakably European visage of her first big crush. She is also (somewhat idyllically) defined by an unflinching love of family; she seems to worship her head-in-the-clouds father (Mark Wahlberg, not at his worst, but far from his best,) and saves the life of her younger brother. In short, she is far from adulthood, but has passed far enough into adolescence that every turn is tragedy or triumph, every moment newly overwhelming.
It follows quite perfectly, then, that her trip to heaven (or a sort of beautiful limbo – the film never quite defines where she is) is split between moments of playful, child-like wonder and tortured, grown-up regret and frustration. The mind-made fantasy world that Peter Jackson creates around Susie is the film's finest achievement; the frequently stark landscapes of his Lord of the Rings trilogy look positively earthbound by comparison, and the viewer can't help but fall into Susie's dreams, both pleasant and terrible, whenever Jackson commands.
Back in the real world, however, several stories are unfolding. Susie's parents fight constantly as her father dives deeper and deeper into a desperate search to find her killer. The murderer himself (a dark, positively revolting Stanley Tucci) rides a wave of perverse ecstasy after the slaying, but slowly starts to tend towards another crime. The boy of Susie's dreams begins shacking up with the misunderstood girl, who just so happens to possess enough psychic ability to occasionally run into Susie here and there.
These subplots are unflinchingly melodramatic and sentimental, indeed. However, the filter that the film passes through is Susie's attention. She is frequently caught up in the pleasures of her halfway-heaven, or buried in confusion and despair in the purgatory it becomes; she is simply not following her family and friends around at every moment. We are, I think, to assume that she pops in on the corporeal world only at moments of intense emotion; as such, the sentimentality strikes me less as a flaw and more as a necessity given the film's structure.
Admittedly, the film does have a tendency to veer off-course, particularly as it slogs through its second act. However, two unstoppable forces carry The Lovely Bones through its moments of uncertainty and all the way to a place near greatness: the deft, imaginative direction, and the sublime performance by Ronan.
Peter Jackson, having formerly been required to hold an audience's attention for nearly ten hours over the course of three years, is well versed in making difficult material entirely watchable and gripping. With The Lord of the Rings, the challenge at hand was the density of the subject matter; in The Lovely Bones, it is the harrowing brutality of the crime and its aftermath. Viewing The Lovely Bones is anything but a pleasant experience; heartbreaking and unflinching, one must truly be up for some abuse to buy a ticket. Jackson rewards those willing to climb on board with a film both visually stunning and quietly powerful, however.
The main event, however, is Ronan. Armed with the most lethally expressive set of eyes in the world, the 15-year-old Irish actress was first lauded for a delightfully infuriating performance in the manners-and-war drama Atonement; in The Lovely Bones, she hits every note on a very large scale perfectly. Ronan can do more with stunned silence than most actresses her age can do with histrionics, and she is fortunate enough to possess a seemingly effortless charm. Most impressively, the film requires her to be everything from enraged to lovesick to overjoyed to desparate, and she swings, often at a moment's notice, from one extreme to the other with remarkable precision. The role is gargantuan, requiring a performer with the ability to straddle the line between life and death just as she wavers between childhood and adulthood; the fact that Ronan succeeds is nothing short of astounding.
The Lovely Bones is one of the best films of 2009, but there are many who should simply not see it. The subject matter is so unflinchingly depressing and, often, disturbing that I cannot in good conscience recommend it to general audiences; there is no way to leave this film in anything but a deep, melancholic funk. Furthermore, viewers with particularly earthbound sensibilities may be put off by the high emotional tenor and fantastic meditations that the film presents. For the daring and the imaginative, however, there is significant merit in Peter Jackson's very nearly great film. It is a difficult movie, but ultimately rewarding.