The Lovely Bones is a sick, ugly little movie about a girl who is raped and murdered and then spends her afterlife in an eternity made out of special effects. There she can dance through fields and sleep in meadows while she watches her parents back on earth writhe in agony over her death and also watch her killer set up his next victim. Here is a movie that sets up that unsettling little scenario and then spends two hours hammering it home with creepy music and overcooked visual effects. This movie gets under your skin for all the wrong reasons.
The movie’s heroine is a 14 year-old girl named Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) who, in 1973, is really no different than any other girl her age. She is irritated by her parents (Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg), she sighs over the cutest boy in school (who has a British accent no less), and she has a heart and a mind that could spin lovely sonnets of poetry. This we get from the fact that she narrates her story from beyond the grave.
It is clear from the opening bell that Susie will soon be dead – her narration actually gives us the exact date. We also see, just over the fence next door, a neighbor named George Harvey (Oscar nominee Stanley Tucci) who keeps to himself and occupies his time building dollhouses. He traps Susie one day by showing her a den that he has built underground in the middle of a flattened cornfield. He tells her that he has built this den for the neighborhood kids to play in. It is a trap, however. Why else would the den be stockpiled with temptations like candles, stuffed animals and Coca Cola?
Anyway, the movie is hardly ten minutes old before Susie is murdered and ends up in the afterlife, an over-saturated sunshine realm where the landscapes shift and Susie is free to play dress-up with the other girls that Harvey has murdered. That’s when she isn’t watching her dad attempting to solve her murder or watching her mother’s heart being torn out by her death. If that concept seems creepy to you, imagine watching it for two hours.
The whole tone of the movie is unsettling. Scene after scene reinforces a funerary tone, shifting back and forth between the afterlife and the real world as Susie watches her loved one in mourning and then danger. That wouldn’t be so bad if the murderer weren’t introduced to us right at the beginning. There is no mystery to follow. We’ve seen him; we know what he’s done and the rest of the movie is a painful death march until somebody catches on. It is a long slog until Harvey finally gets his comeuppance. I don’t know when I’ve hated the last twenty minutes of any single movie more than this one.
The movie was adapted from a novel by Alice Sebold which everyone seems to have read except me. Nothing I see in this movie makes me want to explore the novel, and I see nothing here that could have been pried from a workable novel. When the movie arrived at a moment when Susie walks through a netherworld and uncovers the bodies of Harvey’s previous victims, I could only ascertain that if the film was faithfully adapted, its readers must have needed therapy.
The cast isn’t bad. We’ve got Saorise Ronan, a good young actress, as Susie. She has a bright open face and a cheery voice despite being, well, dead. We’ve got Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz as her grieving parents. We’ve got Michael Imperioli as a good-hearted police detective. We’ve even got Susan Sarandon as the partying grandma whose function is the film comic relief. Then there’s Stanley Tucci as George Harvey, one of those creepy guys who lives next door and keeps to himself. Every single pore seems to drip pure unquestioning evil. He has been killing for ten years but isn’t smart enough to know that when the police are breathing down your neck, it is probably a bad idea to keep a charm from your victim’s bracelet tucked in your hip pocket.
I think I could dismiss this movie were it not for the talent involved. It was directed by Peter Jackson who uses the same special effects wizardry here that he put into The Lord of the Rings and King Kong. But those movies had purpose, the special effects were at the service of a very well-crated screenplay. Here the story is written at a nauseating tone. The afterlife is creepy and overlit. The real world is dark and depressing and, everything that happens in between is so unsettling that you just want to go take a shower.