To prepare for this film, I read Alice Sebold’s dreamy novel, written from the perspective of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) after she has already died. The novel wastes no time getting to the point of how she died, either. The rest is her watching Earth, trying to point her parents in the direction of her killer, of closure, of justice, and to tell them somehow that she loves them, and goodbye, and to wistfully watch her sister and friends growing up as she will never get to do. The premise is so lyrical and personal, I was sure that Peter Jackson, the director of Heavenly Creatures, would know just what to do with it. I fear that he did not.
First, the great. The transitions between Susie’s inbetween afterlife and that of the still-living are beautifully handled — it’s perfectly clear and poetic. At times the vistas veer dangerously toward too much (for an example of too much, see The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus), but generally Jackson reinterprets Susie’s world in a tender way. Casting Stanley Tucci as the skeevy neighbor Mr. Harvey (complete with eerie blue contacts and a wispy blonde comb-over was surprising genius. Tucci’s whole persona is normally so warm and Italian and boisterous that it is hard to imagine him being creepy and reclusive. With Vera Farmiga’s eyes, Tucci can mix his natural nonthreatening aura as an actor with the meticulously choreographed practices of a predator who knows how to deflect suspicion. It’s also clear that he read the novel to provide the depth that the script denies him. I fear no one else on screen did bother to read it. Surely if a script leaves so many gaps in a character sketch, one would do some research to help with the role.
Mark Wahlberg plays Susie’s father beautifully with what he was provided, as does Rachel Weisz as her mother and Rose McIver as her sister. Ronan has the angelic innocent look her 14 year old Susie needs, but she is relegated mainly to gazing nakedly off camera. The movie seems to be about something very else than the book. Maybe I misread it, but honestly — it just felt wrong and weird most of the time, like a clumsy cover of a well-known song.
Some moments are wonderful, notably the most effective ones in the book, and Susie’s passing through from life to not-life. One great moment is the last few moments of her life, and the other, the last few of Tucci’s anonymity — both involve Tucci really getting to roll around in the muck of his character. While I am no fan of a certain kind of violence against women, completely eliminating that very important element, even by implication, is tantamount to reducing all the players’ actions and suffering to little more than a terrible accident. I was happy not to have to actually watch it, but wow, it was totally excised. Of course in 2009, one immediately assumes that a creature like Mr. Harvey would play with his victim before chopping her up; in 1973 when this story takes place, I can tell you, people still didn’t believe people would actually do that to a child. Otherwise the setting feels arbitrary.
Act III, except for a key heart-pounding scene, is weird and off-pitch. Like the novel, it goes to one sort of dumb place and another unresolved place. Between that and the sanitization of the crime, I was left a little cold. The Lovely Bones is definitely worth watching with your book group to discuss with the novel, and to enjoy Tucci’s performance and the delicate membrane between life and afterlife, but HBO will suffice for your investment in it.
Release date 12/11/09
Time in minutes
Director Peter Jackson
Studio Paramount Pictures