Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Distracted from Death -- Reflections on "The Lovely Bones"

What happens to us when we die? As a kid, I used to stay up all night, afraid to go to sleep for fear that I wouldn't wake up. I refused to sleep with my hands crossed over my chest because that was the position of the dead in their caskets. Then, sleep would come, night gave way to morning, and a new day's challenges and interests took away such morbid thoughts.

Peter Jackson's thoughts as a filmmaker have never strayed too far from morbidity. Dead Alive, The Frighteners, and The Lord of the Rings were films that dealt with the afterlife, whether through zombies or ghosts. Now, by adapting Alice Sebold's breathtaking novel, he has the opportunity to continue exploring his ideas about death.

And it fails.

Not by much, but it fails.

Before I get into my reasons for this, here's a quick summary: Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is a 14-year old girl like any other -- precocious, naive, in love with a mysterious boy and yearning for her first kiss. Unfortunately, it's not meant to be. One fateful evening, her naivete leads her into the trap of a neighbor, Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who rapes and murders her. Susie soon finds herself in the "inbetween," a magical place where she must learn to let go of all her earthly attachments before entering the kingdom of heaven. Susie can't let go, though, and begins to watch the action back on earth as her father, Jack (Mark Wahlberg), works to put the pieces of her murder together in an attempt to solve it.

I admire Jackson for taking on this book. It had to be quite a challenge. The novel's story spans several years, follows multiple characters, and deals with some tough themes. Unfortunately, he can't make it work here. It felt to me that he got lost in his need to build the world of Susie's "inbetween," and forgot about the importance of building characters on earth. Whether you've read the book or not, it is hard not to be disappointed by the way Susie's mother, Abigail (Rachel Weisz), is given short shrift. She makes a hard decision during the movie that seems to come out of nowhere, and is later handled with no consequence. In addition, the characters of Ray and Ruth are horribly mishandled. These two characters feature prominently in the climax of the movie, yet don't appear much during the duration of the story. As a result, the climax seemed stupid as opposed to moving and heartfelt.

On the good side, I did enjoy the performance of Saoirse Ronan. I first saw her in Atonement, a movie I loved, and she continues to build an impressive resume with this movie. She brings a sense of wonder, joy, and heartbreak to Susie. I believed her throughout the film. I also liked Rose McIver's performance as Susie's sister, Lindsay. She's intelligent, persistent, and does a remarkably brave thing during the movie in what is one of Jackson's most brilliantly directed sequences. It's too bad the rest of the movie isn't as amazing as that five minute stretch.

It's too bad that the lack of characterization gets in the way of what could have been an exceptional movie. I could have left this film reflecting on death, on the sadness of loss, the horrors of losing a child, and the relief of letting go; instead, it was no different than being that kid whose nighttime thoughts on death were washed away by the morning sun.

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