The Lovely Bones

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February 7, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

As is my usual style, I’ll no doubt babble for quite an extended period on this film as I do about most others I watch so, if you want the short version, then I can simply offer you this: If you decide to go see Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, bring a good pair of boots with you; at least knee high. You’ll need them to wade through this treacly mess of a film that, rather than offering an insight into the effects of death on those that are left behind and a glimpse of a potential afterlife, instead comes closer to giving us a glimpse of what it must be like to actually be dead at the core of one’s mind, if only for two hours and fifteen minutes.

Based on the novel of the same name, which I admit I’ve not read, Peter Jackson’s film tells the story of Susie Salmon (“like the fish” they keep saying, and kind of like the film too since I had the feeling of swimming continuously upstream just to make it through), a 14-year-old girl who is murdered by a neighbour. Having been murdered, Salmon narrates from the afterlife as she remains in a sort of purgatory shaped by the emotions of those that survive her: her mother, father, sister, brother, grandmother, would-be boyfriend, some chick who sees dead people and her murderer too. Actually, having compiled that list, it’s mainly only about her father and mother. Structure not being a strong point here, Susie’s sister really only becomes important in the latter stages for plot development, the murderer is a cardboard cut-out with clichés haphazardly sticky-taped on, her brother disappears from the film almost entirely after the first half hour and the grandmother, played by Susan Sarandon, is just a comic crux to leaven the tedium through one execrable montage that involves her keeping house and being very bad at it because she drinks a lot and is carefree and stuff.

Meanwhile the would-be boyfriend is just a set of carefully maintained teeth with an English accent and the girl who can see dead people is fully encompassed in my seemingly dismissive summation of her as ‘the chick who can see dead people.’ I’ve been assured they’ve got some more depth in the book but I can’t confirm that myself. They certainly couldn’t have less depth there. So all this being the case, the film is really just about Susie’s parents and Susie herself which makes it all the more of a shame that they aren’t actually any better mapped out than the other characters; they just have more screentime.

The first half hour or so documents Susie’s life with her family. They live in Pennsylvania and the year is 1974. Throughout this section and all the others Susie narrates with an irritating breathiness that I think is supposed to suggest a hard-earned wisdom. I think that wisdom is earned because she’s dead. It’s hard to tell though since this film ostensibly doesn’t communicate anything. One thing is for sure though, in the league of ‘dead people narrating their stories’ this is more in line with Desperate Housewives than Sunset Boulevard. Susie goes to school, has a crush on a senior who comes from England and then one night she gets murdered. Having been murdered she travels to an afterlife shaped by, you guessed it, utterly banal computer generated imagery.

Meanwhile her family grieve in various ways which I shall recount fully here to save you a trip to the cinema. Her father goes vaguely mad for a bit and starts hunting down every possible suspect by looking through their taxes (he’s an accountant by trade). His only other defining characteristic is that he makes ships in bottles. Oh, and he’s Marky Mark. Meanwhile, her mother feels bad so she goes and picks oranges in some far away state. Yup, moving stuff, right? Meanwhile, just down the street, the murderer plots his next move when the need to kill takes hold once again. As it turns out, Susie was not his first and may not be his last victim but it’s okay because after a certain point both Susie’s father and sister both come to just know he’s the culprit. Meanwhile the personal lives of the family and the criminal side of the murder are combined by the pleasant appearance of Michael Imperioli as a police detective, a reminder of happier, more carefree days when I was watching The Sopranos and not The Lovely Bones.

Once the film ended, my partner remarked that the middle section, as Susie Salmon bounces around her own personal purgatory, would make for a decent cell phone commercial. She’s right, although I was actually put more in mind of those little segments film production companies place at the beginning of their product. This film has such a beginning itself with the Dreamworks boy fishing from his snug little seat in a crescent moon. France Gaumont’s logo, surely intended to be reminiscent of the famous cover to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella “Le Petit Prince”, shows us a young child, in silhouette, walking the curve of a tiny planet to find a single flower protruding from the ground. The child kneels and plucks it and the flower grows to become Gaumont’s famous red bloom. Meanwhile in South Korea, CJ Entertainment have their logo with young children playing with fireworks on an island set against a starry sky. The fireworks rise and swirl and play and eventually become the company’s colourful logo. I’m sure you’ve seen such production house logos. They wish to instill a sense of childlike wonder and a sense of the magic and immensity of the skies and of the universe… and that’s fine since they hardly stray over the twenty second mark. They’re the same the world over because they are inherently quite banal. Jackson, however, carves a whole middle section of an already bloated film out of such turgid imagery with little set up beforehand to encourage the audience to follow him.

It would seem that somewhere along the way Jackson forgot how to communicate with audiences and is now quite convinced that if he could just spend enough money and just augment an image enough digitally he might, just might, actually manage to establish some sort of repartee with the people in the cinema. Like his King Kong – which I’ll admit right now is one of the single most unpleasant viewing experiences I’ve ever had, a film shaped by an uncanny ability by the director to pervert every single positive of the original and create something both inexorably tedious and unconvincing – this film is just a chore from start to finish.

It’s perhaps not the amount of CGI that bogs the film down, but instead the obviousness of the imagery that’s on display. I’ve heard some of that comes from the original author who also worked in dull visual metaphor but this being the film adaptation it’s Jackson’s fault for not at least trying to fix it. Instead he gives full voice to these tedious visions of tree leaves turning into birds (or was it butterflies) and of ships in bottles crashing onto the shore as Susie’s father destroys his own collection in a fit of rage. Even when not hopelessly mired in CGI, Jackson’s imagery is, often hilariously, poorly judged. One scene shows the murderer’s other victims walking out of a field to greet Susie and lets us know that at this point Jackson is so devoted to avoiding interesting visuals that he’s reduced to riffing on Field of Dreams.

Banality isn’t Jackson’s biggest sin though. Quite incredibly, from the slim pickings of a message the film cobbles together, Jackson then manages to undercut his own work comprehensively; leaving even the most forgiving of audience members shaking their head. At the core of the film is that those who survive tragedies such as murder must move on, and carry the memories of their loved ones with them as that is how they now exist. The script hardly manages to explain that and eventually stoops to just delivering it as part of Susie’s ongoing narration; a thinly concealed last ditch effort from an incompetent scripting team to get where they realise they need to be without having to fix what went before. So death is part of life and we must just move on and not let the evils of others poison us? Fair enough Mr. Filmmaker, sir. Or at least it would be if that monologue wasn’t delivered just before we see the evil murderer meet a highly improbable end thanks to… fate? Karma? Chance? Forgiveness!? I’m thinking it might be the last one and that’s genuinely disturbing.

The way the film is mapped out Jackson seems to imply that Susie and her family’s ability to move on and recover is enough to slay the wicked beast. Less poetically, it just shows an absolute cowardice on Jackson’s part since even when the core message of the work is ‘moving on’ the villain’s death still needs to be explicitly depicted on screen to send the audience home safe and happy. If nothing else the film details the true potential for perversity in mainstream Hollywood media. Further irritating me as regards structure is the revelation that, if ‘moving on’ and dealing with death positively is actually the message of the film, then the depiction of Susie’s rendezvous with the murderer, even though it cuts away just before the deed is done, is basically unnecessary. In fact the first half hour or so of the film before the murder takes place is nothing more than cheap emotional pornography if the film is to be judged on honestly handling its theme.

So that’s that then. I guess I’m just left to wonder what exactly happened to Peter Jackson. At the time of writing this I admit I’ve still not seen beyond the theatrical cut of the first Lord of the Rings film, but I suspect that trilogy was the project that unhinged the man’s sense of proportion. With The Lovely Bones and his adaptation of King Kong Jackson has managed to make two features on the trot that I can count as singularly unpleasant viewing experiences. Although this can’t quite replicate the astonishingly awfulness of Kong, it comes amazingly close, as if Jackson can channel the near-worst of cinema (short of snuff and maybe Larry Clark) with dangerous ease.

It’s easy to understand how Jackson’s earliest films mostly worked since they required no real dramatic underpinning to them. Braindead (Dead-Alive to the Americans out there) was riotously fun and inventive while Meet the Feebles and Bad Taste worked fairly well within their various limitations even if their chosen conceits wore thin before the end credits rolled. The real puzzler then, is Heavenly Creatures. Was it a complete fluke? It would seem so. How did the Peter Jackson that shaped that fine film end up making drab test reels for CGI studios? I’m not quite sure but honestly I’m also not so sure I want to dig any deeper to find out. Between this and King Kong that’s five hours and twenty-two minutes I’ve wasted on this jackass. I’m no mathematician but that’s longer than the combined runtimes of Heavenly Creatures, Meet the Feebles and Braindead. I apparently should have quit while I was ahead. Peter Jackson should have too.

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