Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, like John Hillcoat’s The Road, is an interesting failure; it doesn’t have the tonal stability of, say, Up in the Air, but unlike Jason Reitman’s well-groomed trifle, it actually feels personal. Adapted—and faithfully, it’s been said—from the Alice Sebold novel of the same name, the film follows 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, feeling credibly and hauntingly lost throughout) from an insular small town in ‘70s Pennsylvania and straight into the afterlife after she’s raped and murdered by a neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). While friends and family fall apart in the wake of her death, Susie fraternizes with spirits and forces herself to communicate with her tortured father (Mark Wahlberg) during vibrantly lensed scenes that bring to mind—for better and for worse—3D platform games, What Dreams May Come, and Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” music video. For her this place is heaven, but for audiences it may constitute something else entirely.
There’s a blinkered quality to the film that might have been more intriguing had the story been given a stirring political context: Much attention is paid to how people dress and decorate their homes, but Jackson shows no interest in how the moral atmosphere of the ‘70s affects personal behavior, and as such the setting ends up feeling irrelevant. Still, there’s something nerve-jangling about the way every locale—Susie’s home, her killer’s own, the underground prison he places her in—feels not unlike her purgatory: an insular world of her own imagination from which she must escape. (Spoilers herein.) In an early scene, the girl rises from her underground prison beneath a dried-up cornfield and runs for help only to learn she’s already dead. For the audience, the realization is jarring and creepy, and she comes to it mercifully faster than Anne Hathaway did in Passengers, after which the film attains poignancy as a dreamy rumination on the things girls on the brink of womanhood cherish and want but are sometimes painfully denied.
Alive, Susie dreams of being a nature photographer and kissing the new boy in school, with whom she meets cute after a performance of Othello she doesn’t like but pretends to, ostensibly because Ray (Reece Ritchie) falls on the Moorish side of the color spectrum (Ronan’s elation is so convincingly cute and innocent you forgive the troublesome implications of her desire); dead, she watches as her father accuses everyone except the next-door neighbor of her death and slowly develops the rolls of film she left behind, and a girl, Ruth (Carolyn Dando), who looks goth and as such has a mainline to the beyond, grows close to Ray. The characterizations may be slim, sometimes discordant (as in Grandma Lynn, played by an unwatchable Susan Sarandon), and Ray’s longing for Susie never feels as convincing as her lust for him, but in spite of these bad or lazy choices, Jackson gets how people grieve for the dead, and the way Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz’s characters suffer over their daughter’s disappearance is felt as strongly and convincingly as the dread conjured by Susie’s sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) coming to suspect George of Susie’s death and breaking into his home for the evidence she needs.
This is an exciting but compromised vision that becomes boring when one considers how the nightmares and dreamscapes of little girls (as in Pan’s Labyrinth) are too often related on screen by male filmmakers as glossy fairy tales while the ecstasies and horrors experienced or hallucinated by young boys (as in The Devil’s Backbone and Where the Wild Things Are) are conveyed on much earthier—more true-to-life—terms. Like Sebold, Jackson troublesomely buys into the idea of fairy tales as girls play, overemphasizing his young female character’s victimhood above her sense of agency. The voluptuous afterlife sequences from Lovely Bones can be emotionally lush, as in Susie finally communing with all of George’s other female victims, but they can also be hokey in their thematic transparency and visual literal-mindedness, though they ultimately fail because the means by which Susie communicates with the living is glaringly underthought, though Ronan’s performance is so strong you may think otherwise.
The actress makes Susie’s conundrum feel anxious and pained, almost existential: Though Ronan, like her character, is trapped in a kind of limbo as a performer, having acted for the majority of the film with nothing but a green screen behind or in front of her, she’s not so lazy as to pawn off whatever frustrations she may have felt about the making of the movie for the frustrations of a young girl taken before her time and trapped in some hypothetical purgatory before a “heaven” that probably shouldn’t even have been described as such to audiences. The actress’s high-strung emotions make one believe, unlike the visuals that subsume her or the silly bit of wish-fulfillment that finally ushers Susie into heaven, that something more than aesthetic child’s play is responsible for the film.