I feel as though two directors inhabit Peter Jackson's body, and are fighting for dominance. One is the gifted visionary who made Middle Earth glimmer just so, and captured every emotional nuance hobbits, elves, and men could express. The other revels in slapstick and CGI and believes you can never have enough dinosaurs or dwarf jokes. Unfortunately, it's that Jackson who directed The Lovely Bones, and the film is littered with tonal missteps, outlandish effects, plot holes, thinly drawn characters, and an emotional immaturity that's utterly at odds with the story.
Based on Alice Sebold's bestselling novel, The Lovely Bones hovers around the spirit of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). In life, she's an ordinary girl, who loves photography, eyes cute boys, and has little time for Shakespeare. All that comes to a violent and grisly end at the hands of her neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Unwilling to move on, Susie exists in the "In Between" a dreamy afterlife that's anything she wants it to be. Yet she yearns to return home, helplessly watching as her family grieves, and her killer walks free and unmolested.
The first scenes of Bones are excellent and haunting. Susie's murder is largely left to the imagination while we spend dinnertime with the Salmons. They bicker, laugh, and make their tardy child a pork chop plate. But normalcy and happiness is over and Susie's already gone, though they – and she -- don't know it. Her discovery of her own death is a fever dream of horror, chillingly effective and incredibly shot. Ronan plays it wonderfully too; she's not just Susie Salmon, she's your daughter, sister, or friend. You feel her loss keenly. But once Jackson takes Susie to heaven, the film loses its train of heartache.
The appeal of Sebold's novel was its heartbreaking simplicity. Yes, it was sentimental, but it didn't shy away from sexuality, gore, darkness, or emotional collapse. Any film was going to skirt the uncomfortable edges, but what is surprising is how squeamish Jackson actually is about the material. Sebold's Susie is fiercely clinging to life and her heaven is precisely what a teenage girl's would be: a duplex, a cool roommate, a school that reads fashion magazines instead of textbooks, and herds of dogs. It's pathetically normal. It's what Susie hazily imagines adulthood – a stage she was cruelly robbed of – to be. Jackson doesn't understand that. I would even venture to say he's bewildered by it, so he childishly populates Heaven with mountains, streams, trees, and topiaries. There's enough Freudian symbolism to make it appear mature (blooming flowers, lighthouses, open doors, darkness), but he ultimately painted Heaven as he might find it. It's not Susie's Heaven. I'm not even sure it's yours or mine.
Still, it was a personal indulgence that could easily be overlooked if the human story remained. In the novel, Susie's death rips the Salmon family apart. Robbed of closure, they cease to exist and function, and the thin familial fissures split wide open. It's messy and it's real. Jackson allows the Salmons to sob unreservedly and give up vacuuming, but he's unwilling to truly tear them apart. Instead, Mark Wahlberg runs wild in pursuit of the killer, but it's portrayed as a quest that's almost humorous in its obsession. While Susan Sarandon shines as Grandma Lynn, called upon to patch things up, Rachel Weisz is left to drift and do nothing. She makes some shocking decisions in the book, and in the context of her character arc, they're understandable if not entirely sympathetic. But Jackson skirts around her pain and tempers her actions. I had the distinct impression that he didn't want audiences to dislike her. Humans are either good or evil in Jackson's Bones. They suffer no doubts, exist in no grey areas, and never make poor choices. Real flaws and emotions appear to make Jackson deeply uncomfortable, so he avoids them.
But evil, now that's something Jackson gets right. George Harvey is a man so exact in his fussy blandness that he's able to lure Susie to his knife, and convince an entire neighborhood he's just a man in a green house. Tucci's performance is clammily menacing. You have met this man once in your life and escaped only by luck. Jackson takes a fiendish glee in that, yet can't resist portraying an unearthly battle of wills between Harvey and Susie. Surrounded by Harvey's previous victims, Susie is positioned as the one who can bring the killer to justice. She's the Frodo Baggins of the In-Between, willing her father and sister to put the pieces together, intoning threats that don't even come to pass.
The result is disappointingly hollow, and only the performances from Ronan and Sarandon give The Lovely Bones any weight at all. It's neither a faithful adaptation nor a daring reinvention of the material, and it's truly baffling why Jackson wanted to adapt it at all. There's no sense that he truly loved the characters or the story. If he had, he would have understood them better. For a director who has filmed the un-filmable, it's troubling to see such a simple and bittersweet story elude him entirely.