Hey, kids! Happy Christmas (or whatever you celebrate) and all that rot! I had to open one of my presents early in order to tell you what my brain and eyeballs say about it, so here you go. This post is my little contribution to The Cinematic Katzenjammer’s Not-So-Secret Santa Review Swap. It’s definitely not a holiday flick (nor a joyous one), but you never know what you’ll get from Saint Nick when he drops something down your chimney. You just need to review it and hope you do a good job at it… OR ELSE. Anyway, grab some eggnog, pull up a comfy chair, put the pet of choice on your lap and read on!
I have a particular problem with most ghost stories in film thanks to zero continuity or lineage in the mythos from one tale to another across the globe. Yes, I’ve seen dozens of great films from mildly spooky to downright scare me under the furniture freaky in over 46 years of watching movies, but their level of effectiveness is more due to great writing and acting than these tales making any sort of logical sense from one to another. That said, after watching it twice, I can very safely say that The Lovely Bones is a beautiful looking, wonderfully shot and mostly terrifically acted movie that for me, was manipulative, frustrating and not at all satisfying to watch.
Even Brian Eno swiping his own music from tracks on Here Come The Warm Jets (one of my favorite albums) and adding them to his often ethereal score can’t save this film from its weaknesses. Then again, maybe it’s me being cranky here? After all, Peter Jackson and I have some unspoken grief beef ever since 1996’s The Frighteners made me want to strangle myself in my sleep after I saw it and the overkill of way too many CG effects and too much trying to be too funny and too serious simultaneously beat a whole theater of paying saps into a blue-green hued coma. That said, this 2009 film makes that old one look a lot more palatable and enjoyable in comparison…
Warning, here there be (some) spoilers: I never read the novel it’s based on, but when I told a friend I was reviewing the film, he laughed and asked if I’d read the book first. When I said I hadn’t, he let out a weird chuckle, put down the phone and called his wife over to give me her impressions of both. All she told me at first was a coy “Oh, you should probably watch The Haunting , Kwaidan or maybe even Death By Invitation again instead…”, which was a bad sign considering I was the one who introduced them to those two classics (and Death By Invitation isn’t a classic, but it IS weird). I pressed her for more information and after agreeing not to get mad at her for revealing some plot points, was told about some major changes from the book and afterward her noting it was her opinion that none of the afterlife stuff makes sense because it’s so vague and non-denominational that it’s clear that the author was going out of her way to be as inoffensive as possible. Which to me, is a sign of an author trying to sell as many books as possible and not fire up too much negativity or debate amongst those who demand depth.
I was able to squeeze some more info out of her before I caught myself asking too many questions, but all of her answers made me more intrigued. By the time I sat down to watch this the first time, I thought I was well-prepared. Needless to say, I actually didn’t need her preview or my notes at all, as even with the changes, the film left me cold and wishing it was a lot more conventional in at least one respect. Yeah, I get the whole horror of a murdered child looking down from above and tossing ghostly glances at her family as they deal with the assorted stages of grief. But in the long pantheon of spirit-based cinema, this is one inept dead person in one inept movie. Hell, George and Marion Kerby (and their dead cute dog) from the many Topper or even Bill Cosby in the execrable Ghost Dad made for much better and effective deceased leads than the otherwise excellent Saoirse Ronan does here as the late Susie Salmon.
The thing is, there’s both too much yet not enough to work with in terms of the narrative and Jackson lets style brutally murder substance instead. After she’s sexually assaulted and murdered (neither is shown) about 25 or so minutes into the film by a neighbor (a great Stanley Tucci, looking amusingly enough, like Bruce Willis in a blonde wig and mustache) she ends up in a gorgeous computer-generated middle area between what the film calls “heaven” (while not describing which version it is) and earth. I guess it could be called Middle-Earth if you have a lousy sense of humor. Anyway, Susie does a good deal of doling out sagey-scented commentary and dealing with wondering where she’s at and who the girl following here is while things go to hell at her former home. Again, Jackson very wisely doesn’t show any violence against the girl, but you knew she was doomed from the moment you sat down to watch this.
Meanwhile, the killer (who’s a serial killer, whee!) gets away with murder as shoddy police work dries up almost any chances of him being found (well, it IS 1973 in the film and proper DNA work wouldn’t be part of police procedure for a while). Soon afterward, Susie’s dad (Mark Wahlberg) goes partially off the deep end tracking down leads and harassing the lead detective on the case (Michael Imperioli) whose affair with Susie’s mom (Rachel Weisz) was deleted from the film (probably to keep the running time somewhat under Hobbit territory). Meanwhile, Ray Singh (Reese Ritchie), the hot boy who liked Susie before she was killed (and is still pining away for her) meets and later hooks up with Ruth Connors, the raven-haired pre-goth gal (Carolyn Dando) who’s sensitive and can “feel” Susie’s presence, meaning at some point you KNOW Susie will take over her body for a big scene that for me, absolutely burned any moral core or remaining lightness out of the film.
Not to ghost story writers: PLEASE Get your shit together. Maybe meet up and talk amongst yourselves or something on a regular basis. Watch a couple of classic ghost stories, perhaps? A little Dead of Night goes a loooong way, I say. If you’re going to do a “vengeful” ghost tale or use some other plot where a spirit can communicate with someone living because they maybe want a killer brought to justice, have that boo-brain haunt the hell out of the police department and NOT the father who helps you make ships in a bottle. I say “vengeful” in quotes because descriptions of the book and film use the word “revenge”, as a key point, but in the film Susie Salmon may as well be pissed off at herself for being stupid enough to willingly walk into that hole she’s murdered in. I think she gets angry a total of twice or three times in the film and only mentions getting some sort of justice once after she’s dead, so the film craps out on that angle considerably, I’d say. This is nothing but an expensive emotional thrill ride in the form of a new-age flick for the easy to cry three hanky crowd and that’s about it.
As I noted above, everything is indeed gorgeously shot and as with some of Jackson’s other work, tonal shifts are well done and jarring. Susie’s death is handled in an interestingly shot and tense sequence where Tucci’s George Harvey (seen earlier planning the crime in detail) lures her into an underground lair he’s dug and she very unwisely agrees to step inside. Cutting between her family at home having dinner and Susie seemingly escaping her captor after elbowing him in the face and running away, any hope of her being alive sinks as soon as you see the heavy mist on screen and her running past Ruth on a foggy street. Of course, those who’ve read the book and anyone smarter than a fifth grader (or who’s seen the trailer) KNOW Susie’s dead. But Jackson adds in a spooky scene of her wandering around in a nether-land and coming upon a bright white (but dirty) nightmare-like bathroom set like something out of Silent Hill. If anything, he’s still got his horror chops from his DEAD-ALIVE days, but I’d say he needs to just do another actual horror film one of these days. Or at least another excellent true-life crime film like Heavenly Creatures.
Meanwhile,back at the review ranch: Susie’s dead and the film dips a toe into procedural (very) lite territory as Susie’s hat and blood are found in the field she met her demise in. Our killer is visited by the police as he cleaning up some evidence, but they do that aforementioned lousy police work and yes, he’s out of their loop for almost all of the picture. Susie’s dad soon flips his lid, and her sister Lindsay (Rose McIver) is eyeballing Harvey as he’s eyeballing her, there’s the potential of another murder, Daddy getting beat up, a housebreaking and after more cosmic between worlds CG work (lovely WETA stuff, yes), and some annoyingly late karmic justice, the film ends where it begins with Susie narrating that she’s dead. Ugh. Did I mention that Susan Sarandon pops in as “comic relief” at some point? No? Well, she does and it’s just weird because the film still drops in some nicely creepy moments and later, even shows some of Harvey’s handiwork in the form of the half-buried girls and women he’s dispatched.
Despite the nice looking stuff, there’s so much else wrong here that I’ll shortcut to the chase. The film alters some major events from the book by dropping entirely or truncating them to narrated sections that might not please those who are devoted to the original work. All of that doesn’t change the fact that the overall story is just NOT good at all. This is a ghostly version of a Twilight film with a grimmer outcome and a much more colorful palette. It’s also paradoxically, a film that defies proper criticism because complaining about the awful script and source material means someone who loved the book has you on their hit list and people who didn’t like the film seem to not like it because they wanted an episode of Law & Order or some other police show instead of a film where the killer is undone by a stupid chance bit of nature (that may not be chance at all) that’s actually funny and insulting at the same time.
Probably the most offensive bit of business comes when Susie’s spirit eventually takes over Ruth and we see what the film seems to really be all about. I was warned about this in the book, but thankfully, the scene where the possessed Ruth smooches Ray is shot as ONLY a kiss and not the multiple scenes from the novel. YES, I get that they were a couple before this moment in the film, but Susie more or less zapping into her body just so she could get it on with her dream guy (she was killed before their first “date”) dips the whole film into creepy underage ghost sex territory (as technically, Susie is STILL 14 years old!). Granted, the scene is in NO way racy, the actors are both clothed and it’s still daylight out. On the other hand, in terms of importance, this scene bugged the crap out of me because Jackson had ratcheting up the tension earlier with that bit of housebreaking noted earlier.
Thankfully, this comes near the end of the film, but by then, it’s all a mess of ups and downs and sideways with everything being a well made but forgettable as soon as the credits roll. I didn’t care about Susie because she was dead, but her ghost was running around above in CG pre-heaven with a new friend, I blew off the case work because the film did the same thing, and even the parts that would have made a decently scary flick in better hands ended up being meaningless because the killer basically lives out his days until he dies in a stupidly funny (and painful) manner again, shortly before the movie ends. There’s no real “closure” except for Susie getting what she wanted and her telling us that she’s dead, so the entire film feels like a wasted opportunity for Jackson to make the novel’s tale a great deal better.
Finally, The Lovely Bones also manages to trivialize serial killing by distilling it down to to one cleverly creepy guy outwitting the police who simply give up and move on despite there being some evidence lying about they didn’t get a closer look at. If I wanted to be manipulated into being pissed off at a film that has this sort of content, I’d have watched 1995’s much better HBO-produced cable film Citizen X again. That gruesome stomach churner was about a real-life serial killer who terrorized Russia back in the late 1970’s until 1990 when he was caught, tried and imprisoned (and most likely executed, according to the film) by that state. It might not be the “closure” you’d like to see, but it sure as hell beats being jerked around for over two hours by a director who’s made far better films and needs to get the hell back on that horse before he’s not taken more seriously (by me, at least)…