What happens to us after we die? What does death mean for the living?
In The Lovely Bones, writer-director Peter Jackson tackles those questions with the same fervor for aesthetics with which he created Middle Earth. His adaptation of Alice Sebold’s 2002 bestseller, which opens Friday, is told through the eyes of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a 14-year-old in 1970s suburbia. The story begins after she’s raped and murdered, and she recounts what happens next from a liminal state between life and death — kind of a Middle Heaven.
As Susie struggles with competing desires for vengeance and closure, the film oscillates between her fantastical world and the real one, where her family is starting to fracture without her. While The Lovely Bones explores how to cope with loss, Jackson indulges his penchant for visual effects to blend Susie’s experiences with those of her family’s. Through wild, groovy imagery, he guides the audience toward a leap of faith as Susie influences those she left behind, lingering as an intangible presence. In one such scene, Susie’s father (Mark Wahlberg) is raging with grief, throwing his glass-bottle ships against the wall in his workshop. To Susie, standing alone on her ethereal beach, the bottles appear as gigantic vessels rocking on a turbulent sea before smashing against a rocky shore.
While Susie’s visuals have their purpose, Jackson’s fascination with them is at the expense of the more compelling story playing out among the living. In the wake of Susie’s murder, each of her family members react in their own way, from obsessively hunting for her killer to skipping town altogether. It’s when sassy Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon) arrives that life with the Salmons gets even more interesting: Not only does she immediately take charge with a vacuum cleaner and glass of whiskey, but she injects some much-needed humor into The Lovely Bones’s bleak landscape. As little Buckley Salmon (Christian Thomas Ashdale) paints grandma’s toes (while she lounges with booze and a cigarette), it’s suddenly clear that everyone’s going to be OK.
In addition to the film’s high-caliber performances and ambitious cinematography, Susie’s romanticism also keeps it afloat, even if her heavy-handed voice-over sometimes undermines the movie’s subtleties. Ronan handles her character’s crush on a dreamy classmate, for example, without sentimentality, which makes it more bearable amid chokingly sappy scenes. Yet, despite some of its overbearing tendencies and steady sentimentality, The Lovely Bones isn’t entirely frivolous. The topics it forces us to consider, from violence against children to notions of an afterlife, test our boundaries — whether we want it to or not.