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THE LOVELY BONES (2009)
THE LOVELY BONES - Review
By Matt De Reno
I am not so sure The Lovely Bones is a ghost movie in so much as a sentimental film, much in the same spirit of Ghost, the classic 1990 movie which featured the legendary Patrick Swayze-Demi More pottery making scene. The Lovely Bones does involve a haunting from beyond, but from beyond with a blissful smile. Well, at least until the spirit remembers it was murdered, it was blissful. The Lovely Bones was not as a good as Ghost, but it was not bad. Not real bad at least.
In The Lovely Bones a 14-year-old girl is murdered and she tells us this through narration. Her name is Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). With the last name of a fish I inclined to think the character's last name has much metaphorical weight as in this girl is going to make a journey to say the least.
After she is murdered, she exists not in Heaven but in a "in-between place," which is best described as a phantasmagorical halfway house, where she can hang on to her ghostly existence, ever so sweetly. Here she can watch over her family from above while she can frolic in a wonderfully imaginative and colorful CGI world created not by God, but by director Peter Jackson. The crux of her problem is that she can see the weirdo teacher that killed her (Stanley Tucci) and how he has escaped justice down on Earth.
As time passes and Susie watches, her father (Mark Wahlberg) is looking, searching, seeking but can't find out who killed her. The local homicide investigator Len (Michael Imperioli) seems to have lost his enthusiasm to solve the case. Suzie provides clues in the form of some beautifully imagined spiritual "crossover" scenes where she can connect with her father. In particular, I liked the look of the dead rose changing to bloody bright red as her father held it gingerly in his hand while standing on the lawn of the creepy weirdo guy's house, who just might have butchered up his daughter. Additionally, there was something very timeless about the candle in the window of her room, which was put there by her father after she was killed.
The Lovely Bones is rather entertaining but I wouldn't read too much into it on a deeper level. I was somewhat surprised that one of my favorite movie critics, Roger Ebert, torched this movie in his review of it, because of what he felt was a deplorable message: "If you're a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward too. You can get together in heaven with their teenage victims of the killer, and gaze down in benevolence upon your family members as they mourn you and realize what a wonderful person you are..." He went on to say the effect of the movie was to make him feel "squirmy."
I didn't get that feeling. I think Ebert wanted her "Heaven experience" to be somewhat nihilistic or something that was neither good nor bad. He seemed somewhat miffed this girl should enjoy her afterlife. But, it wasn't her fault her life ended so unfortunately was it?
I found Peter Jackson's vision of Heaven (he of the Middle Earth vision with the Lord of the Rings Films) rather rich, inspired and evocative of something that could be described as "oneness" with all and perhaps to be taken metaphorically and not literally. If anything, it was visually engaging and artistic.
There are scenes where the girl's father is smashing all his ship models in bottles down on earth. Up in her "in-between" place, we witness a brilliantly creative scene of full-sized boats in glass bottles floating across a pristine ocean and smashing to shards on the rocky shores.
Lastly, and I don't mean to harp on Ebert here, but he also chided Peter Jackson for not even considering there "might not be a heaven." Is that really even necessary to go there? Why even make a ghost movie if Heaven is not a given. Can agnostics see ghosts?
The Lovely Bones is based on a wildly popular novel by Alice Sebold. I am not sure how true to the book the movie is but the story in the cinematic presentation is not without its flaws. In particular, I felt the ending was rather disappointing. Leading up to it there was a scene where Susie's older living sister suspects something strange about the teacher too and sneaks into his house. She finds his journal underneath a floorboard and makes a mad dash out of there.
Somehow this is still enough time for the killer to pack up his steel safe, where he stored Susie's body in a sack, load it into his truck and then go to the sink hole and pay some rube to help push it end-over-end until it is lost in the sinkhole. In my mind, the movie was over already. They should have ended it quickly after the book was stolen and given to the Salmons.
Some points were hard to swallow and in that sense I could not help feeling that the father's efforts to find the killer were short changed by the plot. At the end, the father is convinced (i.e., because of the rose in his hand), that he had found the true killer. So what does he do? He nearly punches the guy's door down. Later he wants to sneak up on him in a corn field and brain him with his Louisville Slugger. Instead, he gets clobbered—nearly killed in fact—by a girl's boyfriend, who was upset or thought he and his girlfriend were being attacked. Meanwhile, when the father is lying there nearly dead in the corn field, the killer is standing close by watching. Why wouldn't the killer finish him off after the teen couple bolted? For a change, the killer would have a good alibi.
I thought when the father understood who the killer was, the film called for some more intelligent retribution. Maybe he would have to outsmart this sick killer? Maybe it would be a cat and mouse effort? Anything but beating the killers brains in with a bat? That was his inspired plan? It just didn't seem to fit that the father would do that.
And why at the very end, when Susie's older sister makes it in the house with the journal, she inexplicably stalls? She hesitates to wait until her mom and dad have a campy heartfelt reconciliation more because Hollywood needs it to happen. Meanwhile, she has this psychotic killer's journal in her hand and the guy was only was chasing her moments ago presumably to kill her.
What does she do? She gives the journal to her wacky grandmother (Susan Sarandon in overly acted and obvious effort to garner best supporting actress attention). Ah—good one—give the killer's journal to the hard-drinking wacky grandmother!
On a more minor note, I thought the Tucci as the killer looked like an actor dressed up to look like a killer, with fake comb-over and moustache to boot. And, as obviously creepy as he was, I wondered how come he remained so hidden in this community for so long. Okay, he was a serial killer. But, he was way to obviously the serial killer. He lived by himself and built doll houses. Len, the homicide investigator, didn't seem to bat an eye.
I know I said this was not a bad movie. The acting is above average. I won't argue Tucci's Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as the killer. I think the young Saoirse Ronan has a bright future and that Mark Wahlberg is still underrated despite some high profile recognition of his abilities. The score is wonderful and Peter Jackson's vision of a Halfway Heaven place is another beautifully imagined work of the CGI imagination. The film was well cast too. Add it all up and somehow the movie still falls short. The Lovely Bones is that rare film where the sum of all parts add up to something less.