Little Susie Salmon, 14 years old and dead, looks back on the world that's going on without her from a new vantage in "the blue horizon," a way station between the Earth from which she's been erased and the Heaven she'll soon call home. Susie (Saoirse Ronan) sees her family — mom (Rachel Weisz), dad (Mark Wahlberg) and little sister (Rose McIver) — being torn apart by her loss. And down the street from their house, she sees the man who murdered her, still undetected, still seething with pedophile furies. Susie's is not a soul at peace.
Outside the precincts of torture porn, any movie that forthrightly depicted the rape and butchery of a young girl would be unendurable (and probably unshowable). So in adapting Alice Sebold's 2002 novel into his new movie, "The Lovely Bones," director Peter Jackson was wise to mute the book's true-crime-style horrors. Susie's murder isn't shown, rape is never mentioned, and her dismemberment is only obliquely suggested toward the end of the picture. The movie dispenses with the usual serial-killer shocks (it's much less bloody than, say, "The Silence of the Lambs") to focus instead on building an atmosphere of thickening dread. In this it is assisted by Stanley Tucci's chilling portrayal of the killer, George Harvey — whose ghastly determination to maintain a façade of innocuous everyday normality is the scariest thing in the film — and by Jackson's very Hitchcockian skill at playing tense cat-and-mouse games with the audience. (The sequence in which Susie's sister finds herself trapped in Harvey's house might have drawn an admiring nod from the master himself.)
Remarkably, "The Lovely Bones" is more than just a powerful thriller. It's also one of the most rapturously beautiful fantasy films in recent years. The other world that Susie now inhabits is an uncanny land of glorious sun-bathed fields and vast frozen lakes, a gorgeously surreal place where roses bloom beneath the ice and the leaves of a tree take wing off its limbs and rise up into the sky like a spectral flock of birds. In one virtuoso scene of digital legerdemain we see Susie — who in life shared with her father his hobby of building miniature ships inside of glass bottles — running along an endless beach where giant replicas of those bottles roll in on the tide and smash on the shore. And there are aftershocks of the earthly torments that brought Susie here — like a probing breeze that lifts away piles of leaves to reveal the corpses of other girls who had the misfortune of making the acquaintance of the hideous Mr. Harvey. This is a movie in which wonders truly never cease.
Jackson generally succeeds in the difficult task of blending the picture's divergent elements of unbounded fantasy and harrowing genre menace. But the movie has structural problems he was unable to overcome. Those who haven't read the book before seeing the film may still sense the awkward joins where parts of Sebold's story have either been truncated or elided altogether. The collapsing marriage of Susie's parents doesn't entirely make sense; the character of a sympathetic detective (played by Michael Imperioli) seems poised for more significance than ever develops; and Susan Sarandon's comic-relief appearance as Susie's brassy, booze-swilling grandmother feels like it was imported from another picture.
Still, "The Lovely Bones" has a terrific lead performance by Ronan, whose pale blue eyes and unmannered expressiveness light up the screen like a rising sun. (The subtle gradations of her mounting terror in Harvey's murder bunker would be impressive in an actress twice her age.) And Tucci's killer is a portrait of twisted malevolence that should claim a prominent place in the cinematic pantheon of unforgettable monsters. The movie itself, impossible to pigeonhole, will find a place all its own.
"The Lovely Bones" is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.
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