THE LOVELY BONES, based on the novel of the same name by Alice Sebold, is a somber tale told with vivid imagination about coping with death from both sides of the eternal divide. It’s very much a film of mood where emotions run deep and devastating, and those emotions are the most potent special effect in a work that is sometimes a bit top heavy with them.
The action is narrated by 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), like the fish she notes, from her vantage point in heaven after being brutally murdered. That perspective, along with the accuracy of hindsight, takes the audience through her murder, where she is cruelly victimized by her empathy, and the fallout of it for her and for her family. Having been wrenched from life so suddenly, before enjoying the full extent of her first serious crush, before being allowed to enjoy life as an adult, she is reluctant to leave this earthly plane behind and so remains in limbo despite being urged to move along by her only companion, a perky girl slightly younger than Susie who calls herself Holly Golightly (Nikki SooHoo). Susie’s family, having had their hearts wrenched out of them suddenly, remains in a different sort of limbo, from which all emotions but grief and anger have been extinguished. Into this dark place comes Susies grandmother (Susan Sarandon), chain-smoking, hard-drinking, hair and makeup exuberantly defiant of her age, and the very essence of the life force so sorely lacking in the Salmon family.
In her own personal heaven, Susie watches her familys life, but refracted through the prism of fantasy. Her house is empty, though her family is there, the gazebo where she intended to meet Ray (Reece Ritchie), the boy she loved, floats in a literal sea of solitude, the leaves of a tree become a flock of birds, and the scream she wails when seeing the proof of her death is the anguish of the damned in one long unbearable note. The fantasy elements are beautifully realized in the hands of Peter Jackson, whose Lord of the Rings Trilogy have made mastery of this aspect a foregone conclusion. Equally well realized are the more mundane minutiae of daily life that are the heart and soul of the film. The unremarkable moments that make up the pleasures of family life thrown into sharp relief in contrast with the killing, and then left as a dim memory in a present that includes a murdered child, Susies father (Mark Wahlberg) overwhelmed by his search for the killer, even when the police have given up, and her mother (Rachel Weisz) an emotional corpse. The script approaches the pedestrian with the mystery that plague the living, the close calls the murderer has with the police, the brushes with Susies younger sister (Rose McIver) who may be his next victim.
The performances are intense. A conversation between Susie and her father about his obsession with making scale models of boats that are trapped in bottles, nicely foreshadows his later obsession with finding Susie’s killer. The slightly elevated excitement Walhberg uses as he explains to Susie the importance of finishing a job once it’s started, hitting just the right note. Weisz is a study in grief that has no outlet. Stanley Tucci as the killer is a lonely schlub in the neighborhood whose very ordinariness is his camouflage. Tucci, with a chilling quiet, embodies the danger that has no place in a quiet suburb, whose barely quelled arousal at the prospect of killing is betrayed in a voice that turns husky, and in turn transforms the warm glow of candles into the very fires of hell. Sarandon brings the film to life the way her character brings the Salmons back. Growling her lines, chewing the scenery, and otherwise effortlessly taking charge of screen and family with a relentless determination to celebrate life on its own terms.
THE LOVELY BONES belongs to Ronan, with eyes that have the light of innocence shining bright. She has the awkward aching eagerness of youth that has not yet found its expression, as well as the more tragic ache that comes from the sadness of what she has missed. By not being precocious, by being the child on the cusp of adulthood, the tragedy and the resolution become more than a cinematic exercise. They become a catharsis.