Unlovely Bones

I saw “The Lovely Bones” last night, and came out of the film with two words running through my head: “deeply unsatisfactory”.

Spoilers will follow – rather a LOT of spoilers – so be warned.  Caveat lector!

First, a positive note: the acting was superb all around.  Saoirse Ronan was spectacular as the film’s protagonist and narrator Susie, a lovely young girl who’s brutally murdered early on in the movie.  Mark Wahlberg played nicely against type as Susie’s father Jack, who was deeply and eventually disturbingly obsessed with solving his daughter’s murder.  That’s an odd thing to say… of course a parent should care deeply about such things, but Jack goes over the line several times between terrible, soul-shattering grief and monomania.  It’s gripping and exciting, though as I’ll get to shortly, the promise never pays off.  Stanley Tucci was amazing as Mr. Harvey, the creepy and methodical murderer, a role I’d never have envisioned for him but one he fully inhabited.  Rachel Weisz wasn’t given a lot to work with as Susie’s mother, but I liked her in the role.  Susan Sarandon did a fine job as Susie’s grandmother, though that character was used in ways I didn’t appreciate (more on that later).  Finally, Michael Imperioli was both sympathetic and convincing as the officer who put up with Jack’s madness and who really tried to help throughout.

What bothered me so much about the movie was its terribly inconsistent tone.  At times the film built some great tension, then dissolved it pointlessly.  Jack was obsessed with solving his daughter’s murder, and at times it felt like the movie was going to be a suspenseful thriller.  There was even a bit where the film hinted at a new victim: Susie’s younger sister Lindsey.  For a short time I thought the film was going to develop into a race against time to solve Susie’s murder before Lindsey was also killed, but no.  All that tension, all that suspense, just drained out of the film again and again.  I don’t know whether this happened in the original source material as well, but I can say that it worked terribly poorly in the film.

The film starts out with Susie’s last days, giving us a nice feeling for her life before it’s snuffed out.  Once Susie dies, the film becomes a bizarre amalgamation of themes and approaches that never mesh at all well.  The scenes set in the afterlife are deeply reminiscent of, one might even say stolen from, “What Dreams May Come”.  I don’t mind that really, although the messages of the two films couldn’t be more different.  In “What Dreams May Come”, Robin Williams’ character literally goes to Hell to save the soul of his dead wife; it’s about true love and how our choices affect our fates.  In “The Lovely Bones”, Susie’s afterlife is shared by other victims of her killer, and the message seems to be that it’s all right to be brutally murdered because you get to frolic in a dreamworld afterwards.  Maybe it’s wrong to want your killer to be punished, and maybe it isn’t.  Is anything really “wrong”, or is it all just meant to be?  Should we just accept things like sheep?  Blech.

Jack’s character adds tension very nicely to the story again and again, by showing how his life falls apart after Susie’s death, how he refuses to stop looking for her killer.  But ultimately nothing he does makes any difference, and moreover, every time the film builds this suspense, it punctures it immediately after by changing tone.  Now we’re hot on the trail of the killer, now Susie is running through the fields and trying on early 1970’s era fashions with her new friend in the afterlife.  Then in the very middle of the film, we’re treated to an extended bit of comedy featuring Susan Sarandon’s character drunkenly dancing around to classic rock and trying to clean the house.  It felt like something out of “Working Girl”, and had absolutely no place in this film.

The film’s climax is a scene where Lindsey breaks into Mr. Harvey’s house to seek proof that he killed Susie.  It’s gripping and very well done, and Lindsey barely escapes with her life.  We see Mr. Harvey packing to flee, and have the sense that everything is rushed and hurried and time is of the essence because Lindsey is racing back full speed to expose him as the murderer.  Then IMMEDIATELY upon getting home, the tone shifts as we get a nice family reunion between Susie’s previously-estranged parents.  Everything slows down again, and Lindsey even hides the proof she found long enough for her parents to share a nice long loving hug.  There’s no hurry any more, take your time, some things are more important I guess.  Seriously, what the hell?  Couldn’t the reunion have been placed a bit earlier or a bit later in the movie, so as not to completely defuse and render anticlimactic the otherwise fine climax?

In the denouement, tension is once again built pointlessly only to be released immediately.  Mr. Harvey goes to dispose of Susie’s corpse, which he stuffed into an antique safe.  The soundtrack and pacing ratchet up the tension as we’re led to believe that something will happen to prevent Mr. Harvey from dumping the body… somehow he’ll be caught… it’s taking a long time… surely something’s going to happen… he’s being watched… maybe the body will fall out or the police will arrive or… no.  No, nothing happens.  Susie’s murderer dumps her corpse and moves on.  Sure, there’s some sort of poetic justice or something at the end, I guess, kind of, but so many opportunities are created then tossed away that the movie was incredibly frustrating to me.

I had a sense that Peter Jackson really didn’t know what kind of film he wanted to make here.  The cinematography was excellent.  The acting was superb.  The script and direction though were meandering and left me frankly annoyed, enough so that I felt impelled to eviscerate the film here.

Don’t watch this movie, folks.  Seriously.  It’s a headache that takes over two hours to develop fully, but at the end, the headache is all you’re left with.

Disappointing.  I really enjoyed “The Frighteners” and loved “Lord of the Rings”, but clearly Peter and his partners are far from infallible creators of satisfying films.

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