Friday, January 15, 2010

The Lovely Bones

Meet Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan: “City of Ember”), a normal teenage girl growing up in the early 1970's. It's a time, as the character puts it, before missing children appeared on milk cartons; a time when bad things just don't happen to children. She is living a totally normal life, going to high school, figuring out what she wants to do with her life, falling in love. This all comes to a violent end one cold December afternoon when she is murdered by neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci: “Julie & Julia”).

Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings”, “The Frighteners”) brings his vision of Alice Sebold's popular novel, “The Lovely Bones”, to big screen to create a work that is almost, but not quite, excellent. The movie follows not only Susie through her final hours and into her afterlife, but it also focuses on the people around her as they try to move forward with their lives without her.

Aside from following around Susie in her afterlife and George as he covers his tracks and plans for his next victim, the film also follows Suzie's family. Her dad (Mark Wahlberg: “The Happening”) starts trying to get the detective in charge of the case (Michael Imperioli: “The Sopranos”) to investigate every suspicious person in town while her mom (Rachel Weisz: “Constantine”) seems to try and forget she ever had three kids. Her sister (Rose McIver: “Power Rangers RPM”) however is the first one to take notice of Mister Harvey down the street.

This movie is not only long (over two hours), but it is very emotionally draining to watch. Tension is built up masterfully, but with little relief or payoff at any point in the film, I started to feel very worn out just by simply sitting there. In fact the only moment of true humour that I can think of once the movie really gets rolling is when chain-smoking, hard-drinking Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon: “Enchanted”) first moves in to try and help keep the Salmon household together.

All of the performances in the movie work for me, but one of the best parts of the film was Stanley Tucci. George Harvey is easily one of the most evil characters I have seen on the screen in a long time. Tucci takes what could have just been a run-of-the-mill pedophile and turns him in to a sort of nightmare fuel that at first glance seems mundane, but it becomes clear quickly that something truly dark lurks under the surface. From the comb-over to the glasses to his quirky way of talking, Harvey is a truly creepy villain.

As much as the story is driven by the events in the world of the living, it is the scenes involving Suzie that try to make this film unique. The limbo between heaven and Earth that Susie finds herself in is very reminiscent of the heaven from 1998's “What Dreams May Come”; full of vibrant colours and beautiful landscapes that are not always what they seem. There are parts of this movie that are trying to be pure scenery porn, but, while pretty, they lack a certain awe inspiring quality that I would expect from a Peter Jackson project.

It's that certain lack of something that ultimately keeps this movie from being truly great. Everything for a truly award-worthy film is present here, but it all feels just a little hollow. Many of the characters, while well performed and not quite two dimensional somehow still feel not quite three dimensional, and some seem like they should be more important than they end up being. I cannot put my finger on it exactly, but even understanding the point of the movie I still feel just a little unsatisfied by the experience.

I think the thing that will ultimately hurt this movie is people not understanding what they are getting themselves into. The trailers give the impression that this is a thriller of sorts; it isn't. This is not a paranormal story about Susie getting reven, it's not a thriller about her family finding the killer to make sure he never does this to anyone else ever again, it's not even really about the killer himself. “The Lovely Bones” is a film about acceptance and moving on; it's not a typical popcorn movie, and if you go into it expecting it to be one you are likely to leave sorely disappointed.

Having not read the book this information is second hand, but I have heard that book is quite graphic at times; not so with the movie. In order to get a PG-13 rating to attract the teenager who really helped make the novel a success there is no graphic violence in the film. The film instead relies on the masterful use of disturbing imagery and lets your mind fill in the blanks; you never see what that straight razor is used for, but ultimately do you really need to? Chances are your mind is going to conjure up something far more extreme than the MPAA would have allowed on the screen anyway. Given this, you may want to think twice before taking younger viewers to see this movie.

While it falls short of cinematic greatness by mere inches, “The Lovely Bones” is still a movie well worth seeing on the big screen. It is beautiful, intense, and powerful, but you need to keep an open mind when you go to see it. This is not action or horror (at least not in the traditional sense), and you may not feel fully satisfied when the credits roll, but then life rarely wraps up everything neatly so maybe this can be excused.

“The Lovely Bones” is in wide release now.

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