“In this man’s fantasy, she reacts to his sexual advances the way a consenting adult woman would, rather than the reality, which is a terrified little girl who wants no part of him. She’s crying, in pain, wants to go home. Quickly, he’s lost control of the situation…”
-John Douglas, FBI (ret.), Journey Into Darkness
David Slade’s 2005 film Hard Candy told the story of a 14-year-old girl (played by Ellen Page) turning the tables on her would-be sexual predator – drugging, restraining, and psychologically torturing him for the next 90 minutes. The film was a fascinating and disturbing cat-and-mouse thriller, but stopped far short of suspending disbelief. As I watched this adolescent girl exhibit all the sensibilities and ruthlessness of a jaded adult, a single line of thought kept ringing.
This has never happened. This could never happen.
Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones takes a different tack. When Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a lively and innocent 14-year-old girl, is lured into the dungeon of middle-aged serial killer George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), it ends exactly as it would in real life. The film doesn’t
bury the lead er…delay…revealing this point, as it happens in the first twenty minutes of the film. After hours of waiting for their daughter to come home, Susie’s parents call the police – her mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) waits at home as her father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) runs around town showing a picture to anyone who’ll look at it. Days later, they both listen in horror as a police detective informs them that they’ve found a piece of their daughter’s clothing.
“We also found blood. A substantial amount of blood.”
I’m belaboring this point a bit, but the sequence plays like every parent’s worst nightmare. I can’t overstate how horrifically the film depicts the preying upon and murder of a child, as well as its utterly destructive effect on the girl’s family. We don’t see the actual killing, but we see every moment leading up to it. When the crime occurs, Tucci and Ronan play the scene with startling realism, but I would stop short of calling their performances “good”. “Unsettling” is more like it. The scene is difficult to watch, and I’m still unsure whether it was prudent to include it. From that point on, the story follows two separate threads, depicting Susie finding her way through the In-Between (an arbitrary blend of Heaven and Purgatory) and her family’s struggle with grief following her death.
But while Susie’s story (in life) may end realistically, I was still reminded of Hard Candy – because like that film, the rest of The Lovely Bones plays very much like a fantasy. But this is not a fantasy of revenge, but rather of consolation for a grieving family – a literal rendition of “she went on to a better place.”
And is the In-Between a better place? It’s yet another elaborate CG world from Weta Digital, but I think a collection of pristinely rendered desktop backgrounds just isn’t enough to impress me anymore. We have the technology, and we’ve had it for a while now. This is certainly not the best we’ve seen from Weta, and while an oversaturated green valley or an endless icy plane with giant crystal bells may look pretty, none of it is going to blow me away at this point unless it also works thematically. And from a storytelling standpoint, the In-Between is almost a total failure.
When Susie arrives, she is greeted by another young girl named Holly (Nikki SooHoo), who seems to exist solely as the Exposition Fairy. She has all the personality and staying power of a Walmart greeter, and as she matter-of-factly lays out the rules of the In-Between – basically, a place to let go of your earthly life so you can move on to Heaven – it’s not entirely clear how her continued presence doesn’t violate these rules. Regardless, Susie spends most of her time playing around in the In-Between with Holly, and it occasionally takes a dark turn. Her experience there seems to depend on two things – how well she’s coping with being dead, and how well the people behind are getting along without her. Ronan gives a solid performance, but for most of the film, she is written as just another rendition of the “ghost with unfinished business“. Nonetheless, these worlds do occasionally collide in some interesting way.
In an early scene, Jack Salmon (Wahlberg) shows Susie how to make a ship in a bottle, placing it on a shelf in a room full of them. The dozens of ships suffer exactly the fate you’d expect, as Jack shows up shortly after his daughter’s death and proceeds to smash every single one of them. Back in the In-Between, as Susie walks along a rocky ocean beach, the waves pick up, and she looks on in horror as huge, lifesize versions of these ships sail in from the choppy ocean and shatter on the rocks. While the real-world scene is just a predictable bit of melodrama, its visual rendition in the In-Between is at least somewhat memorable.
The real-world story is about as close as the film comes to a passable narrative. It spans a couple of years, as Jack, Abigail, and the rest of the Salmon family deal with their daughter’s death, each in their own way. Lynn, Susie’s grandmother, comes and stays with the family, and is played quite ably by Susan Sarandon. Jack begins a half-cocked investigation, bombarding a well-meaning police detective (Michael Imperioli) with accusations against anyone and everyone around town for the most slight and arbitrary of reasons. This subplot could well have succeeded as a Columbo-style “howcatchem” detective story, but Jack is no detective, and his investigation is really just a series of random, baseless accusations. The tragic irony is that when he meets George Harvey, his daughter’s actual murderer, he accuses him of the crime based on evidence just as flimsy as with any of the others, and nearly gets himself arrested in the process.
Stanley Tucci is almost unrecognizable as Harvey (I’ll admit – I didn’t even realize it was him until I began this review), but for how cartoonishly the character is written, he might as well have been wearing a rubber mask. Tucci is a great actor who does the best he can, but he is utterly wasted here. And while the character’s fate is rather unexpected (and certainly only possible in an age before modern forensics), it’s tonally bizarre. What message can we extract from his final scene? What goes around…kinda comes around? There’s nothing sadder than a pedophile past his prime?
As I spoke with others about this film (reminding them that the protagonist is a raped and murdered 14-year-old girl), the most frequent question I received was this: “Do they catch the killer in the end?”
I must admit, this question never occurred to me. For my part, catching the killer may be satisfying and cathartic when the victim is an adult, but there’s really no upside to the death of a child. And whether or not this fictitious killer is caught doesn’t matter nearly as much to me as what message the film is promoting about the world at large. The most provocative thing about George Harvey is that he seems perfectly normal when he’s not murdering children. I sometimes wonder how many more films we’ll have to see that depict “seeming normal” as a sinister warning sign. While most people aren’t secret pedophiles or murderers, it’s remarkable how many parents will make the opposite assumption if they see a 40-year-old man with the audacity to speak to a child.
Regardless of its message, The Lovely Bones plays more like an ill-conceived therapeutic exercise than a film. The family’s story is tonally all over the place, but this erratic emotional curve mostly rang true for a family dealing with the death of a child (owing heavily to the performances of Wahlberg, Weisz, and Sarandon). But while I may have found their struggle realistic, I certainly took no pleasure in watching it.
FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10