"The Lovely Bones" is an intricate tale of 1970s suburbia and "the blue horizon" that lies beyond.
"The Lovely Bones" is a reverse murder mystery. There's no question about what happened to Susie Salmon; in the first minute of the film she informs us that she was kidnapped and killed at age 14. Speaking from a section of the hereafter she calls "the in-between," she observes her family grappling with the aftermath of her disappearance, and her killer going about his business undetected.
Susie's cheerful narration, never seeking our pity yet dispensing compassion to those she left behind, is our first clue that this will be a crime story like no other. Adapted from Alice Sebold's acclaimed novel, the structure is intricate and the telling is deft, with interludes alternating between two distinct sections.
The first largely concerns Susie's murder in a Philadelphia suburb and its investigation. It is set mostly in 1973, as the Age of Aquarius disappeared into the dark chasm of the Manson, Zodiac and Dean Corll serial murders. The second section involves her experience of the afterlife, where Susie lingers, hoping to guide her family though their sorrow, to see her murderer apprehended, and to come to terms with "the world without me in it."
The first section, with its bell-bottomed fashions and modish middle-class decor, looks as if it was art-directed by the Partridge Family. Splashed with cheerful colors, it's a time of somewhat forced optimism, a Sears family portrait with worry lines around the eyes. The Salmons count their pennies; Dad, played by Mark Wahlberg as an overgrown Hardy Boy, is an accountant. Mom (Rachel Weisz) has traded in her philosophy books for "Hints From Heloise," and Susie (Saoirse Ronan) frets that the dreamy boy in her film club doesn't reciprocate her crush.
She makes a date to meet her dreamboat in the local mall's gazebo, which becomes the film's symbol for innocence and romance. Instead she's entrapped in an underground chamber constructed by skeevy neighbor George Harvey. Stanley Tucci broadcasts a creepy vibe by disguising his nasty intentions. His voice wheedles, his gaze darts, his beige-on-beige coloration suggests bland camouflage. He's a void, crafting elaborate dollhouses as empty of life as his own home. The scrapbook of clippings he keeps about the girl up the street is a stomach-twisting inversion of parental pride. Whenever he appeared onscreen, I felt my guts churning.
The sequences in "the blue horizon between heaven and Earth," where the murdered Susie waits until her earthly business is done, are radiant. The dreamscapes resemble rainbow-hued covers of '70s rock albums Susie would know; the lighting grows vibrant or shifts with her emotions like a cosmic mood ring. And Susie, like her grieving parents, has lots of feelings to channel. When she refuses her spirit guides' advice to let go of life and move on, the consequences are ugly in her spirit world and brutal on Earth.
A film alternating between suburbia and the astral plane would seem designed to fail, but director Peter Jackson's adroit editing makes each sequence give urgency and momentum to the next. The film's soothing wonderland episodes impinge on suspenseful moments in ways that ratchet up the tension. Jackson stages a couple of nerve-shredding cat-and-mouse scenes; in one, a detective played by "Sopranos" star Michael Imperioli appears to be shadowing the killer through one of his eerie doll houses.
Toward the end there's a nail-biting bit involving Susie's spirit and evidence of her murder that swerves 180 degrees from the conclusion most stories would deliver. Movie murders usually trigger a clockwork plot of police procedure or vigilante retribution, with culprits brought to justice and wrongs avenged. "The Lovely Bones" has different goals. Its concern is the psycho-spiritual fallout of a murder after the body and the investigation have gone stone cold. It suggests something almost unheard-of in crime stories: The closure that survivors need isn't catching the criminal, but rather healing the trauma and moving on with life.
Broken bones heal, tragedies pass and obsessions with old wrongs can only harm the survivors. Love and domesticity by their very nature are a rebuke to the death drive embodied by Susie's solitary killer. Rarely has a film launched by a killing seemed so insistently alive.
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