I am a marshmallow.
Wasn’t always, but I certainly am now. When I was younger, I prided myself on seeking out the most extreme, the most challenging, the most difficult movies and images I could. There was no work of fiction that went “too far” for me, and I considered it a thrill to sit through a movie that other people declared to be too dark or too upsetting.
Over the last decade or so, though, my empathy switch got recalibrated, and suddenly I find myself getting weepy over movies all the time, and since having kids, it’s out of control. The strangest things set me off, and I am aware of how ridiculous it is even as I find myself utterly given over to these emotional thunderstorms. The other day, for example, I was driving Toshi to meet the rest of the family for Thanksgiving dinner, and he’s recently become obsessive about The Beatles since I picked up some of the new remasters. So he demanded the White Album, and we were singing along to it as I drove, and we got to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and as I was singing about the domestic bliss of Desmond and Molly Jones, and as the angel-sweet voice of my little boy piped in from the back seat with “Life goes OOOOOOOON!”, I lost it. It was one of those moments I will bank and treasure and look back on for the rest of my life, and it was nothing more complex than the right song at the right moment.
As a result of my self-appointed big ol’ crybaby status, I was actively afraid of “The Lovely Bones.” I knew what it was about, and I wasn’t sure I wanted that in my head. I won’t read news stories about abused and murdered children. I know it goes on all the time. I know there are people who do horrible things to children. But it’s something that sends me into a near-physical panic now when I read details of these things. I hover a lot around my kids… I want to protect them from every bump and scrape right now, while i can, because I know for the most part, I’ll have no control over their safety. I won’t be around them 24 hours a day. All I can do is love my kids as well as possible, nurture their creativity and their education and foster as much joy as I can for them, so they grow up happy and smart and healthy, hopefully. All I can do is plan for the best and understand that the worst is always a possibility, always a very real shadow just waiting to fall on us.
Peter Jackson, working once again with his right and left arm, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, rounds out a fairly amazing decade as a filmmaker by anyone’s standards, starting with the back-to-back-to-back booyah triumphs of the “Lord Of The Rings” films, followed by the itch that just had to be scratched that is “King Kong,” and finishing it out with this sad, dreamy, hopeful film that defies easy genre classification or even summary. It is a lush visual experience, with the film’s visuals all serving as a constantly unfolding, constantly flowing emotional weather report, a sort of external manifestation of the inner journey of Susie Salmon, played with a wisdom beyond her years by Saoirse Ronan.
Susie Salmon is the girl who tells the story in “The Lovely Bones,” the girl who speaks directly to the audience, the girl who was murdered in a cornfield on a December night in 1973. I haven’t read Alice Sebold’s novel, so walking in, I wasn’t sure what I was going to see. Based on the trailers, I thought perhaps Susie Salmon would eventually start influencing her sister to get back at the man who killed her and solve the murder so she could move on. That’s a logical assumption. A little bit “Frighteners,” a little bit “Heavenly Creatures.” Shake well and enjoy, right?
Only that”s not the film PJ ended up making. Not really. Instead, “The Lovely Bones” is more akin to another of my favorite films from this year, “Enter The Void,” an attempt to visualize the process by which we let go of the dead once they”re gone, and by which the dead let go of the world once it”s time for them to move forward into whatever”s next. There”s no real murder mystery to “The Lovely Bones,” and Suzie doesn”t spend her time as a vengeful spirit. She”s just a girl, suddenly and violently disconnected from the world she knows, who can still see and hear and feel the people she’s lost, and as long as she holds onto those tangible connections, they still hurt and suffer and thrash about in the shallows of their own grief as well. It is overstuffed with optimism about the afterlife, and despite dealing with some of the darkest corners of human behavior, PJ never wallows in the violence or the horror, instead choosing to make those things impressionistic. It makes palatable what I was afraid would be unwatchable. And in the process, it becomes a sort of stealth weapon, a film that sneaks up on you, then devastates.
It’s truly depressing to see how reductive so much of the film conversation is sometimes. People want to reduce this entire film to the art direction, bagging it sight unseen as “What Dreams May Come Part Two,” or they just dismiss it because of “all that CG.” This is an exhilarating visual experience, as one of our most ambitious and muscular filmmakers expands his own vocabulary and uses the experience of crafting these epic scale fantasy films he’s been making this decade to tell a story that is human and heartbroken and, despite the setting, not about the fantastic at all. Everything in this movie is in service of both character and theme, and deeply felt, and even if you end up not liking it, this is a film worth real conversation.
Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg play Suzie’s parents, and their reactions to Suzie’s death are very different. Weisz’s role is probably the thinnest in the film on the page, but she gives the performance a good deal of weight, a testament to just how strong a performer Weisz has become. She suggests the soul that’s sufferering at the loss of her daughter, even when the script doesn’t make it explicit. Wahlberg, who I think needs a strong director if he wants to do his best work, registers perfectly as a slightly inarticuate, not especially bright guy with a big heart who is flattened not only by Suzie’s death but by the idea that there’s nothing he can do to change it or fix it. Rose McIver plays Lindsay, the younger Salmon sister, and she’s got probably the trickiest role in the film. She’s a background character in the first part of the film, but when Suzie dies, Lindsay gradually moves to the foreground, and eventually, she’s responsible for connecting the dots that no one else is able to connect. McIver has to cover a lot of ground here as an actress, moving from childhood to young adulthood over the course of the film’s chronology, and her work is subtle and strong. She’s all rounded edges and baby fat, and there’s a sullen anger to her work after Suzie’s death that is impressive.
Susan Sarandon plays Weisz’s mother, and she’s a wicked joy in most of her scenes. She’s the grandma who smokes and drinks and still gets her hair dyed so she looks younger, the grandma who all the kids know they can talk to about anything. She’s both hilarious and oddly touching, and she gives the film a much-needed spike of humor to help leaven the darkness. Speaking of which, Stanley Tucci’s work here is assured and meticulous, an excellent portrayal of the type of person who does this type of thing. He is George Harvey, the divorced loner who builds dollhouses in his spare time, the man who has perfect rose bushes in his yard and terrible secrets in his heart. We’re told early on that he’s the one who killed Suzie Salmon, and their connection is what drives much of the film. Harvey is a classic serial killer, a compulsive man who still manages to lead a methodical life, knowing that’s the only thing that keeps him out of jail. Tucci knows that there’s no redemption for this character, but he still manages to invest him with a shrunken, sad sense of humanity, so even if we hate him, we understand him. I hated watching Mr. Harvey onscreen, but I recognize him. This strikes me as a clear-eyed portrait of evil, one that PJ didn’t have to dress up or exaggerate. There’s no moustache-twirling necessary… George Harvey leaves a dark stain on the world, and in one beautifully staged sequence, Jackson lays bare the full measure of Harvey’s horrid work over the years, and it doesn’t matter how benign the outside… Harvey is revealed as a monster.
Jackson’s work is stunning, and this is a great example of how the tools that we typically hand over entirely to genre filmmakers so they can tell the same basic “save the world” story over and over to kids can actually be used to tell any story, and to express emotion through pure imagery. Any filmmaker who builds a vision of Heaven onscreen is taking a big chance, putting something of themselves onscreen to be judged. After all, you’re talking about paradise, a vision of perfection, and showing it, giving it substance, requires you to define perfection for yourself. I love how Jackson uses the visual elements of The In-Between to explain what’s going on inside Suzie Salmon. It’s an emotional landscape, always changing, moving from season to season as Suzie’s feelings evolve. Gorgeous stuff.
Andrew Lesnie’s photography and Naomi Shohan’s production design both sell the period setting with an almost invisible hand. Never overstated, the period just feels authentic and right, and Brian Eno’s score offers constant support while never overpowering the imagery. The WETA Digital team has done amazing adult-minded work here, much of it designed to be felt more than seen. Which brings us back to the subject of me being a total marshmallow. When this film hits the home stretch, there are some big emotional jumps made in the script, and if they didn’t work, the film would be flat out ridiculous. They pay off, though, and by the time Suzie’s last lines of voice-over are delivered, I was just ruined by my encounter with this simple girl and the story of her lonely end. I wept not only because of what was onscreen, but for all the Suzie Salmons out there, all the first kisses they’ll never have, and all the George Harveys undiscovered, unpunished. I wept at the idea of a world that can hold so much beauty and so much horror at the same time. This is a significant, powerful film, one that I will revisit soon and often.
“The Lovely Bones” opens December 11th.
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