"These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections – sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent – that happened after I was gone. ... The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future."
Those are the words of Susie Salmon, spoken to us from beyond the grave in Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones.
It’s not difficult to see why Sebold’s best selling novel – about a murdered 14-year-old girl who from the hereafter observes the activities of both her family members and her killer – attracted visionary director Peter Jackson (the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the remake of King Kong).
Here was a tale that would allow the Kiwi filmmaker to blend his trademark visual imagination with the eye/ear for female adolescence that made 1994's Heavenly Creatures arguably his best film.
We know almost from the first frame of film that our young protagonist, Susie (Saoirse Ronan), will soon be dead. She tells us so in narration. Even so the film's opening moments create a sense of dread as we observe the otherwise unremarkable goings-on within a typical suburban household that we realize will soon be cast into the depths of despair.
Blessedly, Susie’s murder at the hands of a neighbor (Stanley Tucci, very creepy) takes place off screen.
Susie then finds herself in an ever-shifting Maxfield Parrish landscape of lush mountains, fields and seashores. She lingers in a gazebo as the seasons change around her (when she died, she was planning to meet the boy of her dreams in just such a gazebo at the local mall).
This isn't heaven, she concludes with another girl (Nikki SooHoo) with whom she shares this netherworld; it seems to be a way station where they must reside until something happens to move them on.
Meanwhile back on planet Earth, Susie's family tries to cope. Dad (Mark Wahlberg), consumed with finding his daughter's killer and her missing body, pays countless visits to the local police station to expound his theories to an exasperated detective (Michael Imperioli). His obsession becomes too much for Mom (Rachel Weisz), who bails on the family and finds work as a migrant worker.
Dad turns to Grandma (Susan Sarandon) to keep the family together, but she's a chain-smoking, liquor-guzzling, Auntie Mame-type. Susie's older sister (Rose McIver) gets suspicious of Tucci’s neighbor and starts her own investigation.
In the end, critics were split on just how well Jackson pulled off this daring balancing act. Some found his CG version of life after death so overproduced as to render the film an exercise in goofiness. Also catching flack was Sarandon, whose grandmother was so wacko that she threatened to undermine the solemn approach Jackson had been working toward.
But everyone agreed that young Ronan, the Oscar-nominated star of Atonement, was captivating as Susie, an utterly normal American teen dealing with the usual family stuff and a crush on a cute schoolmate.
Also riveting: Stanley Tucci in an Oscar-nominated role as Susie's killer. Here the familiar and typically friendly bald actor is very nearly unrecognizable behind thick glasses, watery green contact lenses and a thinning mane of sandy hair.
See Bob's general introduction to the Beyond This Vale of Tears film series.
Other films in the series “Beyond This Vale of Tears: Hollywood Visits the Afterlife”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- December 3: Stairway to Heaven (1946) Not rated
- December 10: Between Two Worlds (1944) Not rated
- December 17: Hereafter (2010) Rated PG-13
- December 24: Heaven Can Wait (1978) Rated PG
- December 31: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- December 5: A Guy Named Joe (1943) Not rated
- December 12: What Dreams May Come (1998) Rated PG-13
- December 19: The Lovely Bones (2009) Rated PG-13
- December 26: Defending Your Life (1991) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.