It was rather puzzling to learn that Peter Jackson would be directing a film about the rape and murder of a young girl by her neighbor. Wait… I’m not really spoiling anything here. But after all, this is the guy who directed the deranged puppet comedy, Meet the Feebles, and hit major mainstream success with the epic blockbuster trilogy, Lord of the Rings. The starkness of a family tragedy. The pounding suspense of exposing the killer. It just didn’t seem like his kind of material. Most importantly, where would you add the CGI?!
But Alice Sebold’s 2002 bildungsroman novel actually turned out to be an adaptation fit for a knight (see? because Jackson is knighted), because this isn’t your typical tale of murder. This is a story told from the point of view of it’s victim, 14-year old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). Providing the story’s narration, she tells your right away that she’ll be murdered. Will even tell you who her killer is. The name of the game is for the characters onscreen to figure out what the audience already knows. To some extent, her family will get help from Susie herself, who observes life on Earth, witnessing the devastation the brutal murder caused her family, from some fantastic world that exists somewhere between the world of the living, and a sort of heaven (Sebold, in response to religious critics about the secular treatment of the afterlife, said that she didn’t write the book with the traditional sense of heaven in mind). “The in-between” her younger brother calls it. New and unexplored, it’s both driven by the imagination of an innocent pre-teen girl, and also shaped by her reactions to the living world. Vast and visually-reliant, it’s a creation satisfying to the CGI fetishist (which Jackson essentially is), but it’s not a redemptive limbo. Rather, this is the place where Susie must find resolve. She is the story’s hero.
Of course, film critics have lambasted Jackson for nurturing the visuals (or, basically, any part of the film featuring Susie’s after-life world) to the point of creating unnecessary distraction. This world is bubble-gummy —contrary to Jackson’s intentions to avoid being hokey— since it is the fantasy world shaped by a 14-year old girl, the death and its impact on her family not having immediately made her bitter, only unclear as to her purpose. And it seems to go on forever. There are two especially aggravating scenes by the film’s end, where suddenly gripping intensity is abruptly held for dreamy drama, something that tested the patience of audience members who began growling in disgust, realizing how fruitless it was to yell at the characters in the film to JUST GET ON WITH IT! It’s like you’ve discovered a trail of gasoline and then suddenly spotted a man nearby about to light up a cigarette (the old Hitchcock philosophy of showing the viewers certain tidbits of information to rile them up) and before he is about to throw down his match, you’re suddenly thrust into a glassy scene of fuzzy gray kittens.
The material itself was really a challenge for any director as it requires to blend conflicting genres into a consistent film. On the one hand is that extreme discomfort of knowing when Susie is about to be killed, the nail-biting suspense of frequent moments when it looks like the other characters will find realize that Susie’s killer is right under their noses, something that of course, always leads to one of them going into the killer’s house to snoop around, but linger longer than they should. Jackson keeps tight reigns on these, and Stanley Tucci plays the villain well — you know, calm, cool, and mostly collected. On the other hand, there is the dreamy fantasy world that Susie Salmon wanders, almost aimlessly, as she watches over her family on Earth, and at the same time, tries to understand her purpose. As already said, that alternative foreground tends to spill over into the thriller in the Earth-world, destroying that well crafted suspense. Add to that, is also a little bit of comic relief where Susan Sarandon appears as the alcoholic, irresponsible grandmother. But, The Lovely Bones is not pure gut-wrenching tragedy, and if it was, there’d be no need for Susie Salmon, except to question why its taking so long to realize that she died at the hands of her neighbors. Instead, her death simply marks the impetus of an epic coming-of-age tale, strange as that can be where it occurs in the after-life.
Filed under: adaptations, after the 90s, bring on the kleenex, commentary, reviews | Tagged: Alice Sebold, Mark Wahlberg, Peter jackson, Rachel Weisz, Saoirse Ronan, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, The Lovely Bones | Leave a comment »