The heroine of The Lovely Bones, 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), narrates the story of her own murder from the Great Beyond. She’s in a sort of transitional part of the Afterlife, unable to let go of her suburban eastern-Pennsylvania world. She’s still connected to & able to observe her bereaved family & others in her life, including her murderer (Stanley Tucci), a serial child-killer.
Alice Sebold’s 2002 best-seller seemed like natural source material for director Peter Jackson—his early masterpiece Heavenly Creatures offered a similar mix of tragic horror with exalted otherworldly visions. But The Lovely Bones, though not without memorable aspects, is on the whole a ponderous misfire.
On the memorable side: Ronan is a beautiful child whose face can register wonder without insipidity, & whose captivatingly cadenced voice carries us along & doesn’t grow wearisome, even though there’s too much narration. She’s outstanding. As Susie’s father, Mark Wahlberg, with the simplicity & emotional immediacy of his style, continues to impress as an actor, & Tucci is potent as the darting-eyed, milquetoast creep. But most of the actors, among them Rachel Weisz as Susie’s mother, Susan Sarandon as the wacky grandmother & Michael Imperioli as a police detective, don’t come across very strongly.
It’s not their fault, though. Jackson’s approach to the story seems largely to be the illustration of Susie’s voice-overs. Only when he steps away from this does the movie come to life—the scene leading up the murder is genuinely grueling, & a later sequence in which Susie’s sister (Rose McIver) breaks into the killer’s house in search of evidence is a fine set-piece exercise in Hitchcock-style suspense.
As for Jackson’s take on the Next World, there’s one epic & magnificently surreal image: A series of huge ships-in-bottles running aground & shattering on a rocky beach. It’s a poignant symbol of the father’s grief. The rest of the Afterlife landscapes are surprisingly banal New-Agey poster art.
By the way, the “lovely bones” of the title, Susie explains, are supposed to be the relationships that have grown up between the survivors because of the tragedy. But this is precisely what the movie doesn’t give us—we feel no special sense of engagement or ensemble riffing between these actors. Dem bones ain’t connected to each other.