The Lovely Bones (Jackson, 2009)

The Lovely Bones

When I came out of the theater after viewing The Lovely Bones, my mind was dominated by two thoughts:

1) I’ll give Peter Jackson this. He is the type of director who, when he sees a brick wall coming at him at 90 miles an hour, is not afraid to hit the accelerator.

2) You actually have to have a lot of talent to make a movie this awful.

As far as the second statement goes, what I mean is that evaluating movies is analogous to grading papers in the following way. Usually (but only usually, not always) bad papers are bad in certain generic ways.  Hence, they usually announce their badness very early and very clearly, and you know you are reading a bad paper. Every now and then, however, because of the name on it, past experience, immaculate spelling, or clever vocabulary, a paper will fool you into thinking, “Huh, this can’t be as bad as I think…” and so, you keep reading along trying to push down the rising dread you have that it really isn’t going to get any better.

A film corollary may be that most of us are trained (either formally or self-trained) to withhold judgment up to a point. We’ve all had (I trust) experiences where something that seemed odd or out of place in the first half of a film made sense upon reflection or turned out to be significant. The combination of the tendency to reserve judgment along with some films’ superficial competence can mean that a viewer will often suppress the feeling of “this is not working” until the misfires reach a tipping point and he realizes “this isn’t going to get better.”

I’m not sure for me whether that tipping point was a segue from Mark Wahlberg’s distraught father smashing bottles in a conveniently cinematic expression of violent grief to a musical montage of Susan Sarandon’s grandmother breaking the family washing machine and hiding her liquor bottles. (Because, hey, nothing quite says comic relief like an elderly lush, right?) Maybe it was the scene in which Lindsey Salmon, having discovered evidence of her sister’s murderer, lingers just long enough to be discovered and then, narrowly escaping a known serial killer, runs through a door into the house and promptly says…nothing for a few minutes while there is a husband wife reunion. (The killer has turned away from chasing her to go dispose of the body, but hey, would she know that?) Perhaps it was an endless sequence (my wife aptly said after the film that she couldn’t think of a single scene in the film that didn’t go on too long) in which the killer rolls a safe with the body towards a sinkhole while being watched by a suspicious onlooker that culminates in…the killer not being discovered with the body but it not mattering because evidence of his guilt has already been established. Maybe it was Jackson’s loving closeup of a killer icicle that appeared meant to imply that even though the universe sat idly by and watched as George Harvey killed a half dozen women and girls, there was cosmic justice after all and his death wasn’t merely some random event. For sure, critical mass was achieved by the time Susie’s voice-over narration informed us that we were all just photos who appeared for a while and then were gone, anyway, so….have a good life, everyone?!?!

Several of these scenes, I’m sure, play better (or at least more coherently) in Alice Sebold’s novel. Their dissonance here suggests to me not so much that the material is incoherent but that Jackson doesn’t really have a grasp of it. That was certainly the impression I got with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, which I always felt were better at representing visually the art design elements of Tolkien’s world than they were at faithfully representing what made the characters inhabiting that world tick.

On the positive side, Saoirse Ronan gives a performance reminiscent of America Ferrara in Real Women Have Curves or Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, one that reveals an actor so comfortable on screen that she doesn’t have to be actorly to draw attention to herself. Stanley Tucci, miraculously, makes me curious about George. If his work is largely lost in a context of a film that is trying hard to be an action thriller in spite of itself, more’s the pity.

The day after I saw The Lovely Bones, I found myself thinking a lot about the film in comparison to Precious.  In some alternative universe these two films would be left to duke it out for some award, not because they are the two best pictures of the year but because the cultural work they are respectively doing is so parallel that their differences are really revealing. Towards the middle of The Lovely Bones, Sarandon’s character chastises the Salmon family for building a tomb in honor of their daughter in the middle of their house. It’s an oddly (and, I’m convinced, unintentionally) metafictive criticism, describing the film itself. Susie’s life is ultimately significant because, well, because it has a whole movie made about it. Precious Jones, whose life is a living hell that can match (and trump) Susie’s horrid memories in the in-between, at least occupies a movie that knows it’s a horror film and doesn’t try to sentimentalize her suffering to mask its core doubts about the meaning of suffering.

As feel-good child murder movies go, The Lovely Bones hits all its marks. That its marks are all over the place may be the reason I left the theater both scratching my head and just a little bit angry that I had been subjected to a lot of violent and disturbing content not because it was necessary to convey some insight into life that the content revealed but rather because some people find (or thought we would find) violent and disturbing child murder entertaining in a suspense-thriller kind of way.

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