REVIEW: The Lovely Bones

135 minutes / USA / Dreamworks Productions
dir. Peter Jackson
Saturday, January 2nd, 2010
starring: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg & Stanley Tucci

Where to begin, where to begin…

Before it was released, The Lovely Bones was (eagerly) assumed to be Peter Jackson’s return to deft character studies that he so abandoned in the middle of the 90s to make his name known through bigger and more ‘exciting’ work in that was to be found in four lengthy features – the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the King Kong remake. With long time cohort in screenwriter Fran Walsh, the New Zealander found his familiar formula once again and there was no real reason to doubt him or this project, apart from the fact that most thought the novel a bit too garish or that he hadn’t retreated to character invested storytelling in more than a decade. Though you can’t lay the blame solely on him or Ms. Walsh, this film was certainly a catastrophic mess. A beautifully fractured mess.

We open on Suzie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) speaking delicately about life, her family, her crush and things she’s in admiration of in general. A delicate, sophomoric composition plays behind her words as Jackson encapsulates the innocence of youth and the beauty that comes with the territory. Soft lighting, calming colors – all done to contrast the grim conclusion of this opening voiceover; Suzie is dead. Beautifully executed, if a tad expected, but give Jackson a break – his first scene in years that has relied on human emotion first and foremost.

As the film progresses, you’ll find yourself loving some scenes and hating others. Though many had hoped this was Jackson’s return to examining character, it appears the now visually visceral director resorts to ostentatious effects to assert his points instead of being crafty with his storytelling. Sure, he pops in a myriad of editing tricks to create a cumbersome tone and his musical choices, albeit odd, do work in context with his vision. If only his vision could encompass heartfelt dialogue and sustaining a palpable protagonist…

This may be the hardest film to truly organize thoughts on this year. Not because it’s complex or the themes are cause for salivation – they’re pretty standard themes, if presented in an unusual package this time around – but because Jackson’s direction is both a masterclass in design and of “how not to organize a story”. He gives too many characters insight into the story to give it the punch desired. From Suzie’s third-person omniscient narrating and appearing sporadically in the gorgeously composed “in-between”, to her father, Jack Salmon’s (Mark Wahlberg) attempts at dissecting his daughter’s case and finding the man who killed her – though his paranoia does make for frantic assumptions of everyone – to Suzie’s grandmother having a 90 second montage to declare the woman’s incompetence, there is far too much going on and it’s entirely Walsh’s fault. You need a protagonist that everyone roots for in order for your film to function and she establishes this with Suzie and Jack, but by having their perception on all events blinkered for extenuate stretches, Ms. Walsh finds the most rudimentary element of scripting to be a daunting task. If the film was told entirely from either of their perspectives, this would be perfectly fine. But she insists that it’s important to know Suzie’s mother, Abigail (Rachel Weisz) is in the midst of a mental collapse at spontaneous moments throughout the duration. Or that it’s important to give Suzie’s first love, Ray some insight in trying to understand Suzie’s whereabouts in the afterlife, so he begins to date Suzie’s friend (though that’s hardly established and could be an incorrect statement) Ruth should pop up after a disdainful moment in order to bring the story back to its harmonic roots. Like a deck of cards during 52 pick up, it’s all over the place. Caprice, but with a singular tone.

Now, I understand what I’m about to say next is akin to that of a man in a straitjacket, but this is a very good movie. Despite the collapsing characters that have no purpose in the film other than to drive the plot forward (while you’d hope you’d be able to reap some satisfaction from the way they’re drawn out/evolve over the course of the film), there is a bizarre fascination that the overall product stirs up. Perhaps it’s a mixture of the consistent brooding tone that only faces issues early on (with the grandmother scene, for example). If Peter Jackson is good at anything, it’s creating a great aura for his films to relish in and here it’s no different. His multifarious use of visual effects to manipulate the landscapes that he dexterously chose are more visually inspiring than anything else this year. His commitment here isn’t the problem, but rather the way he suffocates each frame to keep it PG-13.

Drearily organized like a colorful nightmare, Mr. Jackson has many of moments where you believe he’ll find a way to incorporate a horror-ish tone sometime soon. You hold onto this expectation for an hour into the film before you realize it isn’t coming. The way he reveals how Suzie was systematically disposed of by George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) under light of burning white rooms and bloody floors is the single best scene that speaks nothing, but says everything. Suzie’s “out of body” experience in these moments are sincere and Harvey’s calculated movements and expressions are mortifying. Unfortunately a moment like this only occurs once more throughout and it’s a scene where won’t find themselves breathing until it reaches its conclusion.

Generally it’s a fair assessment to go “well that would’ve been better if R rated”, but there is one of the few times where this statement is most applicable. It’s understood that there’s a contrast between the harrowing world the Salmon’s are throttled into and the semi-heaven Suzie is attempting to reach them from, but it’s all done bit too tenuously. Beauty emerges over the beast in Jackson’s vision – which is also perpetuated greatly by Jackson thematically in context of what the film drives at – but with his audacious parading around his style before the film’s substance, the film obviously suffers. The only way it would’ve worked out to be a great film is with an unhinged R rating. There’s no understanding Harvey’s mind – despite the focus placed upon him at times throughout – and he’s constructed simply as a monster. Tucci does greatly in giving you food for thought about the man, but for example, his character cannot thrive under veil of a PG-13 rating; he is recondite for the sake of being politically correct and not for the sake of making a story better told, which is from where this annoyance derives. Perhaps it works in benefit for those that don’t like to understand their villains, but it’s all shoddy obstruction to me.

Although a mix between Jackson’s fanciful focus and a story that is put together without care – as if each story arc was mushed together for the sake of it – should equate to an asphyxiating experience, there is a clarity conjured that is even more paranormal than the story at hand. With flimsy editing that both hinders the ensemble in an array of illogical juxtapositions that separates the natural work of Ronan, Tucci and Wahlberg from the mummery of everyone else, as well as ‘organizing’ a bumpy story without any discipline this mitigated thriller would be assumed a failure, but it all comes together in a piquant mess; a fragmented frenzy that’s a feast for the eyes and has the ability to touch the soul effortlessly. Too bad the utmost effort originates from keeping the film as marketable as possible because The Lovely Bones could have been as lucid as Suzie’s life after death, if as Promethean in viscera as it was in cinematic illustration.

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