Jackson's 'Bones': The Furthest Thing From Lovely

Saoirse Ronan in 'The Lovely Bones' i i

hide captionSaoirse Ronan plays Susie Salmon, a teenage murder victim who spends most of the film in an otherworldly limbo, following the actions of her family as they try to find her killer.

Dreamworks Studios
Saoirse Ronan in 'The Lovely Bones'

Saoirse Ronan plays Susie Salmon, a teenage murder victim who spends most of the film in an otherworldly limbo, following the actions of her family as they try to find her killer.

Dreamworks Studios

The Lovely Bones

  • Director: Peter Jackson
  • Genre: Drama/Thriller
  • Running Time: 135 minutes

Rated PG-13 for mature themes, disturbing violent content and images

With: Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Michael Imperioli

Sitting through Peter Jackson's film of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones is an ordeal. I'm not talking about the subject. The book opens with the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, so even a good adaptation would be an ordeal. But Jackson's adolescent New Age computer-generated fantasyland is an excruciating fusion of the novel's primal trauma and his own sensibility, which is more at home with juvenile, male-dominated Lord of the Rings epics. There isn't a second that rings true — on any level.

As in the book, the narrator is Susie Salmon, played by Saoirse Ronan with red hair and pale, glowing blue eyes. The actress has a lyrical presence, but the movie uses her and those eyes for a kind of cheap mystical sentimentality. Susie tells the story of her murder — rape isn't mentioned in the film — by a serial killer who happens to live in her neighborhood. The neighbor, Mr. Harvey, is played by Stanley Tucci with a finicky comb-over and caterpillar mustache. He shifts uncomfortably when he's questioned by an oddly oblivious detective played by The Sopranos's Michael Imperioli, who looks in amazement on Harvey's intricate homemade dollhouses. Sorry—this guy's so transparent he might as well have "Child Molester" tattooed on his forehead.

At first, Susie watches as her parents, played by Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, react to her disappearance and the discovery of large amounts of her blood — no body — in a pit in a field. She moves back and forth between worlds. In a melancholy state reinforced by Brian Eno's floating score — much of it borrowed from his Music for Airports — she stands semi-transparent watching the living, including the hunk she had a crush on, her younger sister and even her killer. Then she and a fellow dead girl romp around a verdant, CGI Never-Never Land accented with bits of New Zealand landscape — at times having so much fun it seems like murder is just about the best present a teen girl could get.

It's no mystery where Sebold's premise came from. She revealed in her subsequent memoir with the ironic title Lucky that she was raped in college, in a tunnel; the police said she was lucky because the last woman raped there was killed. The Lovely Bones can be taken as a fantasy of the death she didn't have. And the limbo Susie occupies is like a metaphor for Sebold's post-rape detachment from her own body and her haunted inner world. The fantasy landscape might even evoke the otherworldy lightness induced by Sebold's turn to heroin.

I think Lucky is the greater book. To work onscreen — and I'm not sure it could — The Lovely Bones would need to have been made by someone who could blur the line between literal and metaphorical. Not, in other words, a director whose demarcations between life and limbo are like an illustrated storybook for 6-year-olds.

Toward the end, Susie drops out of the film and Jackson seems to think he's making a Hitchcock thriller. Then, in the climax, he cross-cuts between the dead girl's struggle to manifest herself physically and her killer's attempt to dispose of her body. Given Jackson's technique, the outcome of the sequence is bewildering. But then there are incongruous notes all over the place, especially the presence of Susan Sarandon as an eccentric grandmother out of Auntie Mame.

Is The Lovely Bones powerful? Yes: How could it not be, given the grisly, tragic premise? But with that power comes a responsibility to bring to life the tortured emotions that drive Sebold's vision. I don't think Jackson's tawdry sentimentality is badly intentioned. It's just that his cluelessness makes the atrociousness of his movie positively supernatural.

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