Lovely Bones, The (2009)

The Lovely BonesReviewed by Erik Van Der Wolf

Starring Mark Walhberg, Rachel Weisz, Saoirse Ronan, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci

Directed by Peter Jackson

Based on the novel by Alice Sebold

While I enjoyed the The Lord of The Rings trilogy and, to a lesser extent, King Kong, I have always considered Peter Jackson’s best film to be 1994’s Heavenly Creatures. A stark departure from his previous over-the-top genre efforts, Heavenly Creatures showed Jackson’s ability to handle character driven material as well as fantasy elements intermixed with a masterful handling of suspense and compounding dread as the story crept toward its inevitable violent climax.

With The Lovely Bones Jackson, once again teamed with his wife and co-writer Fran Walsh and co-writer Philippa Boyens, visits these same elements once again and delivers a film that is every bit as good as Heavenly Creatures and, in some ways, even better.

Based on the best selling novel by Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones tells the tale of fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), who is brutally raped and murdered by her neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), in rural Pennsylvania on December 6th, 1973. After suffering this violent end, Susie finds herself in the “in between”, a heaven-like place which, according to her guide Holly (Nikki SooHoo), can be whatever she wants, she just has to let it.

The Lovely BonesBut what Susie really wants is for none of this to have ever happened to begin with. She yearns to be back on Earth with her loved ones and observes them constantly from this ethereal plane.

As years pass, Susie watches helplessly as her parents begin to drift apart as her father (Mark Walhberg) becomes obsessed with finding her killer, completely ignoring Susie’s mother (Rachel Weisz), who is slipping into utter despair.

Worse – she can also see her murderer George Harvey as he successfully covers his tracks, getting away clean with her murder, and begins plotting the abduction of his next victim. And as Susie’s rage grows, she must decide between seeking vengeance against George Harvey and simply letting go and allowing her family to heal, as her constant presence keeps the wounds open.

But if she does, George Harvey will not have only gotten away with her murder, but will most likely get away with many more.

Since I haven’t read the novel, I’m unable to comment on how faithful the script is to the source material, but what I can tell you is that The Lovely Bones is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful and emotionally moving films I’ve seen in some time.

The Lovely Bones can only be described as a story with many emotional spinning plates: joy, sorrow, dread, fear, anger, remorse, wonder, delight – all are in in play here; and Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens’ script strikes the perfect balance and keeps all those plates spinning until they need one to crash to the ground, at which point you feel every jagged shard impale you right where it counts.

Saoirse Ronan delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Susie Salmon, and one can’t help but care for her from the get-go. The fact she tells you she’s going to be murdered in short order only enhances the sense of impending doom and sorrow. And when it finally does happen – in a scene where the dread and suspense can only be described as suffocating as Susie is helplessly thrust toward her unavoidable fate – you feel like you’ve been not only been kicked in the stomach, but had your heart ripped out to boot.

Once Susie enters the “in between”, the visuals truly take over as this ethereal plane represents Susie’s ever changing emotional state. And as one would expect from a fourteen-year-old girl who has just been raped and murdered, her emotions are like a runaway roller coaster, and Jackson’s corresponding visuals are truly stunning. This is what CGI was made for.

The Lovely BonesAs always, Jackson gets the best from his actors, in particular Stanley Tucci who, like Saoirse Ronan, delivers an Oscar-caliber performance as George Harvey. Women in the screening physically drew back into their seats whenever he was on screen. If that’s not Oscar worthy, I’m not sure what is.

The only weak link in the cast would be Mark Wahlberg. While he’s not terrible as Susie’s grieving father, one can’t help but get the sense he’s in over his head here just a bit and a more skilled actor could have taken the role to a deeper emotional depth. Still, the last time we saw Wahlberg he was running from fucking trees, so this is definitely a step up.

A special shout out goes to Art Directors Jules Cook and Chris Shriver, Set Decorators George DeTitta, Jr., and Meg Everist, and Costume Designer Nancy Steiner, who capture the 1970s perfectly, and their masterful work carries over to the “in between”, their sets blending with the CGI seamlessly.

While it may sound odd to say a movie about the rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old girl is “beautiful”, that’s not entirely what The Lovely Bones is about. While that is the catalyst, at its core Lovely Bones is a coming of age story, a story about coming to terms with death, with life, and never taking it for granted. It’s the movie What Dreams May Come wanted to be, but failed to accomplish.

With The Lovely Bones Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and author Alice Sebold deliver a life affirming movie, even while subjecting us to the horrors of it.

5 out of 5

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