The screen bursts into color as fantastic imagery flashes before us. A flock of birds lands on a bare tree, becoming leaves. Purple mountains rise; swirling brown leaves blot out the horizon; deep blue seas rage; and teenager Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) watches it all in stunned, beatific wonder.
Susie Salmon, the protagonist of this adaptation of Alice Sebold’s popular novel The Lovely Bones, is dead. But she’s not ready to leave Earth behind for the glories of Heaven, so she’s marooned in an “in-between” where all she can do is observe.
She’s dead from the opening scenes of the movie. We see her in flashback, with her loving parents Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz), sister Lindsay (Rose McIver) and brother Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale)—and her killer, neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci, a makeup-encrusted grotesque).
Harvey lures Susie into a trap. Precisely because we know she isn’t going to get away, the tension and dread are unbearable—up to a point. Understandably, director Peter Jackson spares us the worst; unfortunately that decision mitigates the earlier effect, and the abject horror of Susie’s fate.
It’s no surprise that Jackson is dramatically rusty: He’s spent the last decade with orcs and monkeys. The central event of The Lovely Bones is the rape and murder of a teenage girl, which is, to say the least, a big cinematic problem. And he doesn’t solve it.
It doesn’t wreck the central conflict of the story, however, which is the unmaking and reassembling of Susie’s family, and Susie’s own path to understanding.
Jackson spares us the special effects on the former, and lets his actors take center stage. Wahlberg and Weisz are both touching, the former for the desperation with which he invests his character, the latter for her growing, and subtle, disaffection. Susan Sarandon shows up as grandma, a strong and comic life force with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
Ronin’s Susie, however, is trapped in Jackson’s special-effects phantasmagoria, and the technological bells and whistles stand in nicely for her “spiritual problems.”
While a lot of the visual pyrotechnics seem arbitrary, they’re effective. And Jackson manages one devastating, virtuoso sequence in which Susie sees all of her murderer’s other victims. Mention, too, must be made of the music: Recycling Brian Eno music from the 1970s was a brilliant idea.
The Lovely Bones works as well as it does, though, because of Ronin’s performance. She makes a character that’s not flesh and blood anymore all too human.