When someone is murdered, their spirit lingers on, observing and trying to influence the course of justice, a ghost seeking revenge. But what of the ghost during this period, what’s their experience and what if there is no peace, no justice, nothing but someone who refuses to accept that they have died.
That’s the basic story behind The Lovely Bones, an ethereal and moving film by Peter Jackson based on the best-selling book by Alice Sebold and starring the lovely and haunting Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon, the victim of the crime.
Set in the mid-1970s, it contrasts the deep love of a father, Jack (Mark Wahlberg), against the naiveté of the times, where when a child went missing no one thought she was abducted because “people believed this sort of thing couldn’t happen.” Yet it does, and it’s the creepy but unthreatening neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) who commits the crime.
Within a few minutes of the film starting, we learn who the murderer is and how the crime transpired, thrusting us into the same journey, stuck in the “in between” that’s not quite heaven. We fear that George might get away with the crime and despair when everyone misses clues.
Susie narrates The Lovely Bones, sharing her confusion about the afterlife and her frustration with things she’s missed, having been murdered at 14 years old. We flip back and forth between her in the afterlife and what’s happening on Earth, where things get increasingly tense and desperate.
A model maker, we first meet murderer George Harvey from the vantage point of within a dollhouse. This is a very symbolic, Hitchcockian point of view that’s repeated when detective Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli) interviews him.
Jack (Wahlberg) is an accountant who also builds models, though his ships in a bottle are an attempt to capture dreams. Mom is Abigail (Rachel Weisz), and her mother, Grandma Lynn (a delightfully eccentric Susan Sarandon) is an alcoholic who, in her weird way, helps the family return to some semblance of normalcy after the murder, even as they leave Susie’s bedroom untouched.
Susie meets Holly Go Lightly (Nikki SooHoo), who acts as a tour guide to the afterlife, a place that’s “not really one place, but not really the other place either.” She still experiences much of the afterlife solo, including one powerful scene where Jack despairs, destroying the ships in a bottle he’s created as Susie sees full-size ships beached and destroyed, with massive sheets of glass around them, as she runs down the beach screaming, “Dad? Dad!” Much of the film is set in a beautiful, surreal afterlife, complete with dreamy visuals and saturated colors, seamlessly transitioning between seasons and environments, and even sporadically delving underwater.
For the years that transpire between Susie’s murder and the solving of the crime, Jack dutifully lights a candle and puts it in the bedroom window, night after night after night. It begs the question:
When do you give up hope, give up faith, and let the past drift away, even as it’s harrowing and traumatic?
Ultimately, The Lovely Bones is a profound movie that carries a heavy karmic storyline but suffers from an unsatisfying ending. Too heavy for most filmgoers, it hasn’t fared well in the theater — after such an intense experience few people would recommend it to their friends. Still, it’s worth seeing if only to see how Peter Jackson created a vision of what has come and what may come.