Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Lovely Bones: Afterlife Murder Mystery

Why did director Peter Jackson take on directing the Alice Sebold story of a fourteen year old teenage girl, Susie Salmon, who’s murdered by a sexual predator and must learn to let go of her attachment to the world in a protracted “in between” existence in the afterlife? Probably because at first, this would seem a complete departure from Jackson’s earlier work, Lord of the Rings and King Kong.

Susie is a typical teenage girl living in the mundane 1970’s: she makes ships in a bottle with her father, hangs out at the mall, has a zany, chain-smoking grandmother (Susan Sarandon), writes in her diary, and has a first crush on a boy – Ray, a lithe and elegant Indian Brit who adds an air of foreign romance to Susie’s Midwestern suburban life. She finally meets Ray one day in the hall at school, and he invites her to a date under the gazebo at the mall, where she intends to have her first kiss.

But Susie's innocuous teenage world is cut short when she's intercepted on her walk home by sinister neighbor, George Harvey. Stanley Tucci just received a best supporting actor nomination for this role, and clearly it's the star turn (along with Sarandon) in the film, though I felt that most of George's sinisterness comes from a single Tucci gesture: a kind of coughing inflection that turns involuntarily into a momentary hungry smile every time he speaks of Susie. It's a pretty dead-on illustration of a super-creep, but he does keep you on the edge of your seat waiting for that lustful grin to once again erupt.

Jackson goes to great pains to fully place us into the 1970's style, and this, for me, is where the movie is its most successful, because the style itself becomes a kind of character, as once Susie leaves this mortal coil and enters her imagined dream world, it's populated with heavy symbolism from that 1970's life she once inhabited: the flights of wooden birds in her father's study become a flight of tree leaves turning into birds; the ships in bottles become real ship-size bottle ships that crash into shore when her father's grief drives him to bust up his prize collection. Even that mall gazebo takes a symbolic turn as Susie's center of gravity and symbolic self.

Here, then, one might begin to see the similarities to Jackson's earlier work. The teenage Susie's 1970's world of Partridge family and shopping malls is not too dissimilar from the idealized home of the Hobbits, and the existential threat to this world posed by creepy George is no less distressing than Mordor itself. And if one looks at The Lovely Bones as a kind of Lord of the Rings for our times, then I think the incoherent mythology of the afterlife it portrays starts to make a bit more sense.

This interpretation of Susie as a kind of floating spirit that needs to learn to accept her own death is startling and wonderful, at first: the moment when Susie is killed and only hours later realizes what's happening is handled with enough originality and grace to take your breath away (she breezes past another young girl, running to escape George's clutches, and eventually finds her family, and then her killer). But I say "incoherent" because thereafter, it's not quite clear if Susie's incarnation follows the traditional ghostly rules of something like Ghost, if she's more in a momentary psychological fantasy land (like the cloyingly awful What Dreams May Come), or if this is some kind of Catholic interpretation of purgatory. It seems to be a bit of each and none of these - if anything, the vast beautiful psychological landscapes Susie inhabits most closely resemble the cosmic journey taken by Jody Foster in Contact.

However, what rules I think this afterlife does follow are simply mythological - like they were in Lord of the Rings. Like the dead kings who fight the battle of Helms Deep, Susie is obligated to the world, and cannot leave it until she accomplishes one final task: to identify her killer to her family (and also, it seems, to find a way to have that first kiss she was robbed of). All this strikes me as too much like the EST program of a living Californian, rather than the spiritual journey of a dead 1970's Midwesterner. But then this, I suppose, is what most people have now instead of traditional religion: a kind of gauzy, three-act view of the afterlife in which unresolved conflicts must be resolved, and romantic entanglements must be satisfied, even if one must invent old-Hollywood supernatural ways to do it. Jackson does it here, like he does in his other lost worlds.

It just doesn't work as well for me here, however, since the first half of the movie is so grounded in the modern realism of the 1970's. Sarandon's character of the zany, smoking grandmother does add a pleasant irreality...and I wanted more of that. I wanted Sarandon to come back at the end. I wanted more than an icy dose of random fate for George. I wanted more from Jack and Abigail Salmon, Susie's earnest and intense parents, than Mark Wahlberg (terribly cast) and Rachel Weisz could deliver.

That being said, the movie does leave you with a profound sense of sadness and feeling for life: Sebold's poetry breaths enough, and Jackson is elegant enough with his visual metaphors, that one is fully transported by the experience of this movie, even if, like many Hollywood attempts at the afterlife, it illustrates a world designed more to gently sooth than to really understand. There really is no sense to make out of what George does, in this movie, and the movie seems to want to say, that's not the point. That Susie gets a first kiss, finally, isn't the point for me either - since such a kiss is impossible. The movie, then, has no point...other than, that's life. In a way, that's enough by itself to be haunting.


  1. The movie is a mess and the reason Rachel Weisz did not seem to do much is the fact that they cut most of her scenes out of the film.

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