Monday, May 10, 2010

The Lovely Bones

Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Rose McIver, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, Reese Ritchie

Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)


Sometimes you flip through the channels and stumble upon one of those true crime shows re-enacting murders that took place decades ago. If you notice, usually the questions concerning the actual event are addressed in agonizing detail but it's the other more important ones that leave you with a sinking feeling in the bottom of your gut. What were her final thoughts before it happened? Did she have a boyfriend? Was she popular at school? What did she want to be when she grew up? What would she look like now? What would she say to her killer? How did her parents deal with it? What would she say to them? Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones is 135 minutes of that sinking feeling, the first 40 of which qualify as a flat-out masterpiece. The rest of it is just...INSANE. So insane Jackson should probably be asked to undergo mandatory drug testing for the decisions he made, some of which are among the strangest I've seen in a prestige project supposedly aimed at mainstream audiences.

Reaction to this much-maligned adaptation of Alice Sebold's 2002 bestseller was almost destined to split viewers into two camps: Those who read the novel and hate what he's done to it and those who never read the novel and are impressed. I fall into the latter category, but wouldn't plead ignorance to any of the film's perceived or actual flaws, remaining completely cognizant of why it's attracted so much animosity. But the one complaint against it I won't accept is that it in any way "wussed out." Especially when it so thoroughly denies the characters and audience closure, or at least closure as it's traditionally expected in American movies. Or not a single story beat going down as it normally would in this genre. Are these problems? Or did Jackson actually find a way to capture the sloppiness of everyday life?

Sometimes you know a movie has its issues but you're too wrapped up in what works to care, especially when what works represents some of the boldest filmmaking of the year. It achieves too much in terms of visuals, storytelling, sound and especially acting to be written off just because things don't match certain preconceived notions. Maybe a safe alternative slavishly true to the source material would have technically been "better" and sent fans of the novel home happy, but the film wouldn't have been as compelling. So I just went with it, which is necessary to fully appreciate Jackson's trippy head-scratcher of an adaptation that refuses to play by the rules.

In the quiet Pennsylvania suburbs in 1973, 14-year-old murder victim Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) narrates her story from beyond the grave. An aspiring photographer, she dreams of the future while harboring a hopeful schoolgirl crush on Ray (Reece Ritchie). And it's actually kind of brave how unabashedly sentimental the film is in presenting it, as this guy of her dreams speaks with an English accent and quotes Shakespeare in front of her locker. Ronan (best known for her Oscar nominated turn as the junior tattle-tale in Atonement a few years ago) takes center stage in the film's opening hour capturing in her expressive face and gigantic blue eyes all the optimism, pessimism, fear and excitement of being a young high school girl with her whole life ahead of her. That life is cut short by neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), cryptically referred to throughout the story by Susie as "My Murderer," a live, in the flesh composite sketch of the creepiest neighborhood pedophile imaginable. Every parent's worst nightmare. With thinning hair and a goofy mustache he'd resemble a cast-off from a 70's variety show if Tucci wasn't so frightening playing him, in the process inviting us to speculate how this vicious monster could have emerged from a seemingly low-key, mild-mannered nerd. When he's not building miniature dollhouses in his solitary residence he leads a double life as a serial rapist and murderer with sights set on his next target. On the way home through a cornfield on a late December afternoon, the distracted Suzie is cornered in his underground lair.

Jackson's decision not to show Susie's rape has resulted in huge controversy. This begs a question: Why would anyone clamor to see the rape and murder of young girl depicted on screen when it's perfectly clear what happened anyway? For the sake of staying true to the novel? Not only would such an approach be irresponsible and ineffective, her encounter with him is so terrifying and tension-filled that showing it would probably be going overboard. Of course, had Jackson chosen to unnecessarily dramatize it in all its grisly detail, fans of the book would still be up in arms unless it matched their vision of the words Sebold put on the page. He definitely came close enough to showing it for me because I found the pivotal scene between the two almost unbearable to watch as is. You can just sense what's coming and Ronan's portrayal of Susie up to that fateful moment makes you so attached to the girl that you want to reach through the screen and save her from what's coming. Had the rape been shown, a different, more uncomfortable feeling would have replaced it.

It's unfortunate the opening 45 minutes had to eventually end because there was no chance the rest of the picture could live up to it. And it doesn't. But it does completely fly off the deep end in genre-bending ways that strangely make the film more absorbing and complex. From the ads I was expecting a light Ghost Whisperer-type second act where Susie helps supply her family with clues from beyond the grave to bring the killer to justice. But nothing like that occurs. She's stuck in what's referred to as the "In-Between" and looking at the CGI used you wouldn't be wrong in assuming that means somewhere in-between an allergy medication commercial and a screen saver. Yes, Jackson probably overdoes it with the effects and it doesn't always mesh with the more serious Earthbound scenes concerning the fallout from the crime, but this is still supposed to be a 14 year-old-girl's vision of the afterlife so that makes sense. Rather than being an active participant in the "investigation" into her murder, she's instead attempting to spiritually come to terms with what happened and watching as her parents, Abigail (Rachel Weisz) and Jack (Mark Wahlberg) deal with the loss in radically different ways. She also must observe in pain as her younger sister, Lindsey (Rose McIver) jumps ahead of her and experiences the adolescent joys she'll never know.

At least on paper, Wahlberg is miscast and seems entirely too young for the role, though the original choice of Ryan Gosling is even more perplexing (how could anyone have considered that?) Wahlberg had to know he was miscast because there's no other way to explain how he would could so completely throw himself into this with an intensity that manages to cover up for it. He's never played a part like this before and it's likely he won't again anytime soon just because it's so far out of his comfort zone, but I was really impressed how believable he was as an obsessed father looking for vengeance. Weisz is underutilized, disappearing mid-way through the story for reasons unclear, but I can't pretend to care when her excised sub-plot was supposedly a ridiculous affair with the investigating detective (played by Michael Imperioli). Taking Weisz out of the equation so Wahlberg and his shaggy hair can act up a storm opposite Tucci was actually a brilliant move, taking the film into thriller territory. We know from the beginning who the killer is but the characters still kept in the dark as Mr. Harvey, lurking in the shadows, senses the walls slowly closing in on him and clumsily tries to cover his tracks.

The creative choices made following Susie's death represent how far the screenwriting strays from conventional expectations. More shockingly, I've heard the haywire events Jackson puts on screen are relatively faithful to Sebold's narrative. Whether the weirdness that unfolds was intentional or not is up for debate but what isn't is how off-the-wall and hilariously inappropriate a musical montage featuring Susan Sarandon as the boozy, disaster-prone grandmother is. Put in for comic relief and tonally inconsistent with just about everything else in the picture, it shouldn't work, but does precisely because it's so entertainingly wild, temporarily lightening the dark proceedings. But that's just the start of it.

An eccentric former classmate of Susie's APPEARS to be some kind of vessel through which Susie can communicate from the grave with her loved ones and guide them, but the girl ignores the signals and alerts no one of what's been happening. And despite hiding in plain sight and being just about the creepiest looking neighbor anyone could have, Harvey isn't initially considered a suspect. The brutal slaying isn't uncovered via actual evidence gathered by the inept detective or the family, but how it actually would be in real life--due to the killer's carelessness and stupidity. That's best represented in his laughably ineffective approach to disposing of the most important physical evidence there is. He makes the mistakes a real murderer would and in turn his potential accusers make even dumber mistakes that would prevent his apprehension.

When Harvey's found out, he does EXACTLY what all murderers do in that situation when they know their number's up. His actions are so realistic and true to life it's no wonder many viewers were turned off and probably found it anti-climactic. The script is observant enough to know that victims and their families don't always get closure and the bigger the atrocity, the less chance there is of it. You always these stories on the news where the victim's body never turns up, the perpetrator isn't found, then years later he's discovered lying in the bottom of a ditch somewhere. Karma can work in silly, almost cruelly comical ways and it doesn't get much sillier than the fate that befalls George Harvey at the end of this film. Jackson deserves credit for having the guts to go through with it.

Even though the 1960's still seem to be more creatively fertile ground in movies, it's the 70's that always tend to lend itself to more interesting cinematic treatment and the production and costume design on display here is unmatched by any recent picture set in that decade. It's like a time-travel trip full of unforgettable images and colors supplied by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and backed by Brian Eno ethereal, electric guitar score. While the CGI scenes of Suzie's "In-Between" (featuring floating gazebos and glass bottle ships) are arresting it's the sinister shots in the cornfield and of Harvey through his miniature dollhouses that pack the biggest punch. The moment Suzie realizes exactly what's happened to her and watches his actions directly following the crime would be enough to keep anyone up at night, as is her "tour" of his previous victims.

There's the tendency to assume because the film is rated PG-13 and adapted from a widely praised bestseller that corners must have been cut and darker elements watered down to attract a bigger audience. Having not read the novel, I can't comment on how true that is but watching this I could still tell that this story must have been very, very difficult to adapt. What's interesting is that when bad word-of-mouth started spreading, the studio re-focused their marketing from older moviegoers to teen girls, who were apparently responding more favorably to the film and its message. That's a curious fact considering how this more closely plays as a dark descent into hell, embodied by Tucci's terrifying performance. Unlike most screen villains, he's scary because  he's a real, recognizable threat. And his victim represents an adolescence lost forever, an idea never forgotten amidst the film's envelope-pushing craziness. Part thriller, part metaphysical drama, The Lovely Bones is the best Unsolved Mysteries episode that never aired. Just as long as you don't read the book first.


The Film Connoisseur said...

Stanley Kubrick's Lolita did the same amount of restraining. It basically didnt show us the old dude having sex with the teenage girl, it simply skipped those scenes and took it for granted that they happen. We dont have to see that in order to understand the story.

I am now intrigued by this movie, now I must see it! Ive been a bit indifferent about this movie for some reason, but your review changed that, I should be reviewing it soon.

jeremythecritic said...

They definitely made the right call not showing it. I think if they did it actually would have zapped the film of much of its terror and suspense. I was indifferent about seeing the film also, but thrilled I did. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on it.