Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009

The Lovely Bones: Dead Girl's Love Story

Directed by Peter Jackson
With Saoirse Ronan, Stanley Tucci, Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz
Opens Dec. 11

Jack Salmon (Mark Wahlberg) is a family man and a hobbyist; he adores his wife and kids, especially Susie (Saoirse Ronan), his eldest; he also loves to build miniature ships and deftly slip them into bottles. "If you start something," he tells Susie as he's completing one model, "you don't give up till you've finished it." He glances up, seemingly referring to the ship but staring right at Susie, and adds, "That is a thing of beauty."

At that sweet moment, Jack doesn't realize he won't have much longer to stare proudly at her. Across the pleasant suburban street in Norristown, Pa., another man, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), is busy with his own hobbies. He has constructed a dollhouse, pristine and perfectly appointed but untenanted. And in a nearby cornfield, he's created an underground rec room, filled with comic books and figurines and Cokes — a kind of clubhouse where he'd like to bring the local kids. One kid. Susie.

"I was 14 years old when I was murdered, on Dec. 6, 1973," Susie narrates in this creepy, dreamy film of Alice Sebold's best seller, directed and co-written by The Lord of the Rings' Peter Jackson. The girl, who vanished late one afternoon and is presumed to have been kidnapped or killed, speaks to us from the in-between — a mostly Edenic halfway house for the recently deceased, a bridge between life and a hoped-for heaven. It's a fantasyland of penguin topiary and gigantic ice-sculpture ships, where fields turn into soggy marshes and autumn becomes winter in a flash of fallen leaves. This engrossing, nearly enthralling movie straddles multiple worlds as well: Susie's bright innocence, Mr. Harvey's meticulous depravity and Jack's ferocious determination to sleuth his daughter's fate.

Like Susie's father and her murderer, Jackson builds models — the foam-rubber puppets of his early Meet the Feebles, the exponentially more complicated imaginary realms of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong — and invites children of all ages to share his obsessions. A director wants to trap life on film, and the prime visual motif of The Lovely Bones is things in artificial enclosures: a penguin in a snow globe, a ship in a bottle, the furniture in a dollhouse, a girl underground, a dead girl in between, some lovely bones in a heavy safe.

But a director's true gift is to animate these figures, bring them to life. Jackson goes further: he keeps Susie alive after she's died. He's not going for gross-out effects here. He shows Susie's attempt to escape from Mr. Harvey's bunker but not her death. And though the film follows Mr. Harvey as he disposes of Susie's remains, it concentrates on the victim and her loved ones: Jack, his wife Abigail (Rachel Weisz) and their surviving daughter Lindsey (the appealing Rose McIver, who plays Summer Landsdown on the ABC kids' series Power Rangers RPM). She could be Mr. Harvey's unmasker — or his next victim.

The New Zealand director began his career with horror movies. His well-named debut feature Bad Taste had aliens seeking human flesh for their outer-space fast-food chain, and Braindead (a.k.a. Dead Alive) was a Sumatran-rat-plague movie about mother love gone spectacularly wrong. The Lovely Bones has elements of some of those mulchy horror films, and another, classic one — this could be Psycho as told by the murdered Janet Leigh character. (Norman Bates had a hobby too: taxidermy.) Jackson also allows a strong echo of his 1994 Heavenly Creatures, a terrific, fact-based study of a girlhood crush that blossoms into murder, which pulled precocious performances from two teen beguilers, Melanie Lynskey and the pre-Titanic Kate Winslet. But essentially, the new film is a story of loving and mourning and loving some more. As Susie says of Mr. Harvey, "He didn't understand how much a father could love his child."

The plot has a few pitfalls. Jack, who fingers dozens of Norristown men as Susie's potential abductor, takes ages to notice the strange guy across the street. Abigail, who departs and reappears with little organic reason, is irrelevant to the central daddy-daughter bond. Abigail's mother Lynn (Susan Sarandon) is around only as blowsy comic relief. But she does have one great line: to Abigail, who refuses to change anything in Susie's bedroom, Lynn says, "You have a tomb in the middle of your house!" In a way, that's true of all the Salmons. With Susie gone, they have a tumor in their collective heart.

The movie is packed with privileged moments. A few are grimly comic, like the interior decoration of Mr. Harvey's subterranean playroom; his choices of teen artifacts are both pathetically out of date and a window into a life of outsider lunacy. And some moments have the most poignant tang. From the in-between, Susie has a glimpse of Lindsey's first kiss — an ecstasy Susie was so close to experiencing before she entered Mr. Harvey's lair, that she hopes she can feel for real before she goes to heaven.

Tucci plays the killer not with a madman's sneers and cackles but with a quiet malevolence; he's never more ice-shivery than when he's pretending to be normal. Such a performance could have upset the movie's balance if Wahlberg hadn't provided the solid foundation of parental devotion. The center, of course, is Ronan, the Irish teen best remembered as the girl whose lie set lives tumbling in Atonement. As the dead girl hovering over her family like a guardian angel, Ronan makes Susie seem an ordinary child whom catastrophe has made otherworldly-wise. Through Jackson's art and Ronan's magic, the obscenity of child murder has been invested with immense gravity and grace. Like the story of Susie's life after death, that's a miracle.

This is an expanded version of the review that ran in the Dec. 7 issue of TIME magazine.