January 13, 2010

REVIEW: The Lovely Bones (C)

Exactly what is it about rape, kidnapping and murder that appeals so much to Americans - or at least to the Americans who tune in each week to watch "CSI" (all three versions), "Criminal Minds", "Without a Trace", "Cold Case", "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit", and "Bones"? That there are so many of these shows should tell you how popular this genre is; that I've never seen an episode of any of them should tell you how disturbed I am by that trend.

Anyway, I don't want to make generalizations about the viewers of these shows any more than I do about the millions of enthusiastic readers of Alice Sebold's celebrated novel, "The Lovely Bones", but suffice to say I don't belong to either group. If you do, you'll likely appreciate Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones much more than me, and you may even glean some meaningful insights from the melodramatic depths of what I considered a whole lot of sentimental muck.

If I understand correctly, the story is meant to teach us that we have to accept death as a fact of life, and that if you love someone you have to let them go, and that heaven exists as our own personal version of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids", and that the world is full of sick perverts who very might well be living next door to you (look for anyone who has the double threat of both a combover and a mustache). These ideas are illustrated to uneven effect in The Lovely Bones, and the result is as lurid and dull as (I presume) an episode of one of those TV dramas: it's all lovely to look at, but my eyes were as dry as a bone.

If you've seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy you know that Peter Jackson is an expert at creating emotionally empty spectacles. He ravishes our eyes and sends rumbles through our ears (the choices of sound effects in this film are baffling), but he doesn't know how to reach our heart (feel free to correct me if King Kong moved you to tears). Much like the heroic Frodo, the characters in The Lovely Bones mope about, burdened by grief and emotionally detached from each other. They each earn our sympathy at different points along the way, but the pall hanging over the entire story (the protagonist is dead and her killer is living free and clear) doesn't allow for much in the way of emotional growth here. I went from horrified to depressed and back a dozen times.

As Susie Salmon, the 14-year old rape and murder victim narrating the story from Exit 37 on the way up the heaven, Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) delivers a steady, stoic performance in a role that I'm shocked wasn't held for Dakota Fanning (perhaps she rejected it, scoffing that she was "too old" for the part). Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz are convincing enough, but along with Susan Sarandon they overplay their roles during the most emotional moments. The lone stellar - even Oscar-worthy - performance in this film is unquestionable Stanley Tucci's: he is an unrecognizable, unrepentant pedophile serial killer who sends a chill up your spine from his first moment on screen. You'll want to see this performance once and never again.

Some of the implied action is so disturbing that I'm actually surprised Jackson was able to swing a PG-13 rating with the MPAA, but word has it that the film tested so well with tween girls that they are in fact the target market (terrific news for heartthrob newcomer Reese Ritchie as Susie's teenage crush, Ray). If this is the case, as my fiancee noted, at least it might remind young girls never to go anywhere alone with strange men.

I know that Alice Sebold was, tragically, a rape victim, and that "The Lovely Bones" was based in part on the circumstances surrounding her attacker. Certainly there is something to be said for writing as catharsis, and not having read the book I won't say that she makes it any more sensational than it needs to be. I still get this uneasy feeling, though, about why people read these kind of books and watch these kind of films and TV shows in such huge numbers. It's like we have to wallow in these depths of despair so that, by contrast, love and loyalty will shine that much brighter. But do we always have to find hope in the midst of something as evil as pedophile rape and murder?

In different ways, The Lovely Bones parallels both City of Angels and What Dreams They Come. Whether those films were better or worse can be argued, but at least they didn't have to submit to the usual trappings of thrillers like The Lovely Bones. Left to his own devices, Peter Jackson turns it into a middling crime story, ultimately more horrifying than heartwarming.

Writing - 7
Acting - 8
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 3
Social Significance - 4

Total: 37/50= 74% = C


  1. I gave the film around a C as well. Boy was I disappointed with the second and third acts of this film.

  2. I may start using your rating system. It's logically not arbitrary.

    Now that I have read your review...

    Rape is never mentioned once in the film. She is not a rape victim in the film. She is simply a murder victim.

    “If you do, you'll likely appreciate Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones much more than me, and you may see even glean some meaningful insights from the melodramatic depths of what I considered a whole lot of sentimental muck.”

    Did you mean: “you may see, even glean some…”?

    King Kong had more emotion that The Rings Trilogy. Sam Wise had a good emotionally scene on Mount Doom though: “Lets be rid of it then. I can’t carry it for you but I can carry you.”

    Stanley Tucci steals the show in the film. He creates sick right before your eyes. Once again though, nothing of rape is ever mentioned in the film. The rape happens in the book, not the film.

    “It's like we have to wallow in these depths of despair so that, by contrast, love and loyalty will shine that much brighter. But do we always have to find hope in the midst of something as evil as pedophile rape and murder?”

    In American Beauty, a boy found beauty and god in death and the deceased. That makes you wonder what some people could find or see in pedophile rape.

  3. Thanks for the thoughts, Film-Book - and for finding that see-even typo. There's always one that I miss...

    That LOTR scene was actually one of the eye-rollers I was thinking of, haha. There was definitely emotion attempted in those climactic scenes, but for me personally it was just clock time in between the epic action sequences.

    Anyway, you're right that Susie's rape is not specifically mentioned in the movie, but it's more than implied in that horrific underground scene and you'd have to be pretty naive to assume it doesn't happen. Incidentally, I'm incredibly relieved it wasn't shown on the way to an R rating. Many people would argue the graphic stuff has to be shown so you know it's real, but that's never sat well with me around particularly nasty crimes (and you know me well enough to know you have a much higher tolerance for horror and gore than me).

    In any case, that's an interesting point about the American Beauty kid, though that never disturbed me, mostly because it seemed to be out of a rather innocent curiosity as opposed to anything really evil. One could say that's where Susie is coming from in this story, too, but therein lies the problem - the film seems to be as much about George Harvey as anyone else.

  4. Hating on LOTR. Have you seen the extended editions?

    If I hadn't read the book, what was implied in the corn field bunker would have escaped me. I would just have thought that Harvey liked his murder victims young like Freddy Kruger. The fact that he finds Susie pretty was just the icing on the murder cake.

  5. Ha, I can't say that I'm hating on LOTR. Just not loving on it at the moment. But no, I haven't seen the extended editions. I ought to take a full day and just watch the trilogy start to finish again.

    Re: the bunker. Understood, and I didn't mean to peg you as naive. I was just getting the feeling really strongly that he was interested in more than just murder, what with telling her she's pretty and beginning to disrobe/get comfortable. Wow, skeeves me out just writing about it. I'll stop.

  6. "If you've seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy you know that Peter Jackson is an expert at creating emotionally empty spectacles. He ravishes our eyes and sends rumbles through our ears (the choices of sound effects in this film are baffling), but he doesn't know how to reach our heart (feel free to correct me if King Kong moved you to tears)."

    Ah Dan, with all our agreement over the past year, there was bound to be one example of drastic indifference and this is it. And two-fold too, as THE RETURN OF THE KING, as emotionally resonant as as film I've ever seen in my life, is one of the greatest films of the new millenium. It's Best Picture prize from the New York Film Critics Circle was a far more significant accolade than the record-breaking truck load of Oscars. I don't agree that Jackson is emotionally frigid, and I didn't feel that way when his debut released -HEAVENLY CREATURES. But there's no doubt that THE LOVELY BONES is a difficult film to connect with everyone. I oppose the majority here, as this wrenching material works on a metaphysical level, and properly negotiates Ms. Sebold's story of familial love. Not every visual choice works, but I must hand it to Jackson, for trying to raise this narrative on to a different plain. With fine performances, I do believe this film is far better than it's getting credit for.

    Needless to say you defend your position vigourosuly, and that's all one can ask.

  7. Thanks for being a good sport about it, Sam. I admit I haven't seen Heavenly Creatures, and all I've heard is that it's good - even better than The Lovely Bones. So I owe it a viewing at some point.

    And I actually think the visual choices work quite well here - it's the narrative ones that rather irked me. The shifts in tone threw me off and didn't let me settle in comfortably anywhere. For some people that made it even more emotionally engaging, but it left me a little lost.

    All in all I don't think it was a bad story to be adapted, but I wonder if a smaller-scale director more focused on the family and less focused on the criminal might have worked better for me.

  8. I'm afraid I'm with Sam on this one (and LOTR) too.

    But I'm a sexual abuse survivor, and this film is a story for survivors, who in fact do need to find "hope in the midst of something as evil as pedophile rape and murder." I don't think our collective fascination with crime stories is a reflection of a sick taste as much as it is a desire for justice and hope, as well as an indication at how much violence hurts us. Collectively.

    It isn't American Beauty that gets shown at the Riverview Theater every year, but the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, back-to-back.

    I saw The Lovely Bones with a big group of people and we were strongly divided. Either you loved it or you hated it. No one was luke-warm. And most of the people who loved it could identify in one way or another as a survivor.

    ****SPOILER BELOW****

    We were divided another way too--those of use who didn't like it were frustrated the perp was never caught. Those of us who did, liked the ending. I find that a little telling too. The reality is that most perps never get caught. The myth that we like to believe is that they do.

    Thanks for this post and the discussion. I'm home sick today and decided to pull out my LOTR DVDs to see them again for the first time in a few years.

  9. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Jeanne, and your forthrightness about your own experience. My life has not been personally affected by something as awful as this, and I admire you for forging on and taking something positive away from the film.

    On the same note, however, I think the majority of people who see it will, like me and some of your friends, not be survivors. And I can only hope they watch it out of empathy, as you suggest, and not for entertainment. Of course there is a need for films that deal with life's tragedies, and as someone who dives right into films and documentaries about war and poverty it's not fair for me to apply a double standard here. So long as people are watching this for the right reason...

    On the topic of justice this provides a really interesting take. From looking it up I've gathered that the film ends in the same way as the book, but personally I found Harvey's end a little unsatisfying (and apparently so did many others - Jackson had to reshoot the fall after test screenings because audiences complained it wasn't graphic enough). For one thing, way too many people suffered at his hands for him to never have been caught. I was also a little shocked at Lindsey's hesitation, brief as it was, in sharing her evidence with her grandmother. Did I misunderstand that, or in the interest of keeping her family together did she think twice about turning him in ? I guess I've never been in that position but you would hope Susie didn't die because others decided not to turn him in...right?

    I don't know, I might be in over my head here. But here's another somewhat unrelated question: did anyone else notice that it snowed about a foot in between the time Lindsey ran away from Harvey's house and the police arrived there? Does that speak to how long they waited to tell the police, or just a shocking error in continuity?

  10. I honestly believe art is in the eye of the beholder. There is not a gold standard for film no matter the efforts to apply one. I actually think audiences will be as divided on this film as the folks are in this discussion, like the people I saw this film with.

    Continued ***SPOILER*** discussion

    You're right, I think, on your read about Lindsey's hesitation. But I'd go a bit further--the book and film are about finding healing in the midst of deep tragedy. Here's this eighteen or nineteen year old girl whose life has been torn apart by her sister's murder, whose entire sense of normal is gone not just by the crime but also by her parents split. She's seeing her mother for the first time in a very long time and she has a moment to choose: justice or healing. She chose healing.

    In the book, that moment was even longer, and even more frustrating. But after watching the film, I could see the point of Lindsey's choice.

    I didn't notice the difference in snow, but you're right on reflection. I can't imagine such a continuity oversight from Peter Jackson, so I wonder if it is about how long it really took to get the police to respond.

  11. Yes, this definitely has the potential to be a divisive film, particularly because the book had such a loyal following.

    Interesting that the decision was drawn out more in the book - I'd actually liked to have had more of that contemplation in general throughout the whole film. But Jackson seemed more interested in moving on to the next suspenseful moment (even though it happened earlier, the build-up to and beating in the cornfield was unnecessarily long, in my opinion).

    And the snow thing was just confusing - the cut from her handing Harvey's journal to her grandmother to the police outside his house was immediate, but if they actually sat on the book for several weeks or months (the police would have descended on the house immediately after receiving the book, and he knew it), well that's just an odd break in the story.

  12. Well, I've not yet seen this, so I can't really join the conversation, but I'm disappointed in what I have been able to read about it. The comparisons to both City of Angels and What Dreams May Come aren't exactly helping, either. Perhaps a rental some day.

    Shocking that you've managed to escape a single episode of all of those procedurals, though. That should go on a resume or something.

  13. I wish it were something to be proud of, but I think if I listed it people would like at me like I have three heads.

    As far as The Lovely Bones, well as you can see it's pretty much a love it or hate it situation, but if I were a betting man I think you'd land on the negative side (especially if you haven't read the book).

  14. I have not read the book, and you're likely right. As a result, I'm pretty sure that we'll be waiting for DVD/cable for this one.

  15. Aside from Tucci's Oscar-nominated performance and some cool visuals, you won't be missing much.

  16. Daniel, I saw it yesterday just to be in the know. I had read it was bad. It was really bad. Mark Wahlberg was dreadful. The CGI fantasy landscapes are mostly ridiculous. Ronan puts her heart into it but she can't save it.

    I thought of you and your lists of lapses in logic. This disaster of a movie has a bunch of them. (SPOILERS FOLLOW)

    - Apparently, from that hole in the middle of a field of corn stubble, with houses visible nearby, he drags the body in a sack and what must be sacks and sacks of all those knick-knacks out of the hole back to his house, and nobody sees!?

    - Near a restaurant, the killer trips over a curb and falls down a high sheer cliff into a quarry. How come there was no safety fence separating that restaurant parking lot from an abyss?

    - Lindsey finds the book of evidence, escapes the killer's clutches, and gets home and spends time saying hello to her mother and watching her father clunk down the stairs in a cast, and finally she shows the book to her granny. More likely she would have burst into the house in hysterics and cried, "I've got the book of evidence!"

    - The killer wants to put the safe in the sink hole. So he and the dump guy up-end the thing over and over again to get it to the pit, but why didn't the killer back the car as close to the edge as possible? And why didn't the dump guy wonder what was in that damnably heavy safe?

    Oh, yeah, and who better to take care of the kids than an alcoholic chain-smoking granny!

    Any more?

    1. To answer your questions, if there had been a fence then it would have been difficult for him to fall over it. He would have somehow had to be miraculously lifted over the fence to fall to his death. This would have looked silly. If the safe had been closer to the dump, then all the scenes that took place during the time it was rolled would have had to take place in a very short period of time. Maybe they could have sped the film up but this also would have looked silly. The moral? Don't nitpick a movie to death.

    2. But isn't that the best part of watching movies...?

  17. You know, Hokahey, I would watch Knowing all over again simply to admire the fact that because of it I found someone else who so appreciates discussing relatively meaningless gaps in logic that 99% of people let slide. Thank you.

    Well if there's anything we disagree on it may be the CGI landscapes. I did take a dig at the miniaturization of character's memories, but that shipwreck bottle scene was kind of eye-catching. I guess that was the part that really did it for me. But otherwise yeah, they were pretty much candy coated coloring books brought to life.

    Now on to your goofs: (***SPOILERS FOLLOW***)

    - I didn't consider how he would have transported body parts and those dolls and trinkets back and forth (or for that matter how he would have had the manpower, tools, and dirt dumping space to create such a bunker without anyone noticing?), but it's a valid question. I think I was distracted by the placement of a cornfield in that residential area, which made no sense to me. Also, why even lure her into the bunker and not just his house? Maybe this is all explained in the book, or maybe his journal pages diagrammed the situation more than I could understand.

    - Hehe, well about that death scene, like I say, I read that Jackson had to make it more graphic after test audiences complained Harvey went too easily. Maybe he just made a bigger drop as a change and forgot to consider why such a ledge would exist unprotected? Also, I don't know how the book describes that scene - maybe it was a restaurant know for its dangerous parking lot. ;-P

    - If you read the earlier comments you'll see that I also was shocked at Lindsey's immediate reaction, and the fact that she was seemingly prepared to hide the book altogether. Wasn't he still running after her at that point anyway? Was she not scared for her safety? An addendum to this is that snow placement, too. If her grandmother called the police immediately and they went to Harvey's house immediately, we're literally talking about an unexplained and immediate major snowfall.

    - I literally leaned over to my fiancee and eye-rollingly muttered aloud during the sinkhole scene: "Why wouldn't he just back the truck up?". Absolutely ridiculous scene, especially in slow-motion. I also thought it was trite that the sinkhole was about to close for business. "Sorry, buddy, we're closing up shop and I can't fit any more trash in there before I fill it up." It's an unregulated landfill - what's the difference!?

  18. OK. I have to jump into the logic debate here, because I might not get around to posting this stuff.

    * On the snow at Harvey's: Are we sure there was snow at Harvey's? (I can't remember.) If so, I would say that means we're supposed to assume it was maybe even a different day. After all, Harvey gathers his things and gets to the sinkhole and dumps the safe and the weather hasn't set in yet. Then again, a lot of snow can fall in just a few hours. So maybe we're just supposed to assume that the cops didn't show up within 15 minutes. Anyway, I can roll with this one.

    * I can actually also roll with the girl and the book. She runs away from this guy, gets to her house, is stunned out of her mind and then ... her mom is there, with no warning. I think it just snaps her out of her mental state and puts her in a daze. Now she's trying to process that her mom is home. Also, in fairness, though for a moment she considers not doing anything with the book -- because now her family is back to "normal" and she doesn't want to bring up the past again if her parents have moved on -- she turns it over to Grandma less than five seconds later. Just because she paused, let's not assume that if Grandma doesn't show up behind her that she never says a word.

    * Also, my assumption with the hole in the ground is that all of the trinkets, toys, board games were left in the hole. I presume only the body was dragged out in a sack. I can live with that. But ...

    * The fucking hole! Yeah, he dug that with his own two hands in one night? Got rid of the dirt? Covered it up? No one saw? And, even worse ...

    * Who the fuck thinks that it won't look strange when light shines out from the middle of a field and two people walk into the earth? Yeah, that's the way to avoid being caught! The old bunker-in-the-ground-100-yards-away-from-the-school trick. Unreal.

    * I'm also bothered by the fact that he hung on to this girl's body for years, even though the others he seems to have dumped immediately.

    * And forgive my ignorance of sinkhole physics, but considering this guy knows he's about to be busted, doesn't it occur to him that his face is going to be on the news and the sinkhole guy might tell people about how the suspected murderer showed up with a big safe before leaving town? He'd have been better off dumping the body somewhere where no one could see him. Come to think of it, he could have dug a huge bunker in the middle of a cornfield and just buried her there. Yeah, that's it!

  19. Most people will read this logic debate and say that we "just don't know how to have a good time at the movies". To the contrary, this is how I have a good time at the movies, or at least after them. Also, I know that discussing something as sick as pedophile murder in these terms might sound really callous, but we're talking about the form and function of filmmaking and storytelling.

    -Snow. I'm almost certain that it was there, but nobody has yet to back me on that so I can't be sure. It was a lightning quick shot of the cops and police tape surrounding his house. But like I said earlier, either way something is off - an out of nowhere blizzard or an unexplained yet really, really important delay of a month before Susie's family turned in the book (since again, there is no way the cops wouldn't have rushed over immediately upon receiving it).

    -Lindsey's reaction. She was a pretty sharp girl and, like Hokahey, I still think she would have burst into the house screaming, especially if he was still chasing after her.

    -Bunker. Again, I don't know how the construction is explained in the book or what diagrams or schemes in his journal would explain it, but on the surface it makes no sense, particularly because it didn't mirror any of the other murders he committed.

    -Sinkhole. I didn't consider that about making his identity known to the sinkhole owner. And since you mention it, how did he continue to leisurely travel around without any kind of disguise? Wouldn't there have been a nationwide manhunt for him?

  20. She was a pretty sharp girl...

    I'm not saying I don't understand where you and Hokahey are coming from that one. I guess I'm saying that if anything would cause the girl's mental state to turn on a dime, it would be sprinting into the living room and seeing your mom after she'd disappeared. Almost like a, "Am I dreaming?!?!" kind of reaction. Not the way I'd write the scene, but compared to the hole in the field, it works. Speaking of the hole ...

    I don't know how the construction is explained in the book...

    I asked a friend who read the book about this. Her memory was fuzzy, but I don't think it matters. When reading a book the author can say the guy dug a hole in the middle of a field and then you imagine whatever you need to imagine to make that scenario plausible. When doing that, you certainly wouldn't imagine anything that looked like what we see in the film, with kids coming and going and other houses not far away and no camouflage whatsoever once the hatch is opened. In a book, it works, because your imagination makes it work. On the screen, it doesn't. The Road had some somewhat similar problems.

  21. Huh, fascinating point about that aspect of the adaptation (and all adaptations, really). Even though I didn't read "The Road", now I think the reason the film let me down a little is because it didn't match what I imagined when I first heard about the book years ago.

    Anyway, I checked out the situation on the book's Amazon page. The description is in the first 10 pages. It talks about how the bunker was built in a section of the cornfield "where fewer stalks were broken off because nobody used it as a shortcut to the junior high". It's also already after dark in the book. Then we learn that he built it for the kids and that it was the size of a small room but had a chimney.

    Then on page 10( rather tellingly) Susie herself says, "I wanted to know how he had built it, what the mechanics of the thing were and where he'd learned to do something like that." Then she goes on to describe how by the time her elbow was found three days later the bunker was already filled in, and she was "in transit" so she wasn't able to see him "sweat it out" and remove all of the evidence. Conveniently for Jackson, this means he didn't have to show it to us, either.

    But above and beyond all of this, the whole concept still doesn't match Harvey's MO (even the last girl he approaches at the restaurant) - why go to the trouble of creating the bunker in the first place?

  22. The snow - I remember the snow suddenly appear and I thought I was seeing one of Susie's CGI visions. I really thought I was seeing things.

    The stuff in the hole. The police detective specifically says that all they found in the hole was scrap wood. All those knick-knacks and Coke bottles (rather morbid product placement) would have had his prints all over them. All that stuff was just ridiculous hyperbole! Even when I first saw all the knick-knacks and things, and knowing that he was probably going to kill her there, I immediately thought, "Now, what the hell is he going to do with all that stuff that's covered with his fingerprints???"

    Daniel - Very interesting about the intensified death scene. When it happened, it looked like he was falling down two cliffs that weren't even connected. But, given the more treacherous cliff, Jackson should have mustered his CGI and placed it in the middle of nowhere.

    As for lapses in logic - they can be forgiven in a film that makes an admirable effort to tell a story intelligently and artfully, but when a so-called brilliant director (I don't think he's brilliant, but The Lord of the You Know Whats fans would) makes a horrid film like this, the lapses in logic cannot be forgiven and I have a field day picking them out.

    Jason and Daniel - Interesting about the book excerpts you researched. From the pages I read, it seemed that the description was minimal and more suggestive than detailed - so you can use your imagination. But when a filmmaker goes out on a limb to be so specific - you gotta do it artfully and convincingly, especially when you have the resources of the director of The Lord of the You Know Whats.

  23. Aha - so I wasn't alone with the snow!

    Didn't consider the fingerprints and him taking all of the stuff out, but then why would he have left her hat there (and in the book, her elbow? - ugh, I feel sick)? And yes, between this movie and The Road, Coke has had an odd last couple of months in the movies.

    Overall I would agree with you that a director of Jackson's stature should have known better; I think the point of my review is that he spent way too much time focusing on the CGI/heaven production and way too little time on the story. So many other directors could have given this the proper treatment, and I actually wonder if Jackson would have even been interested were it not for all the CGI landscape fun.

  24. Yes, the CGI. Most of it was silly, but I enjoyed the breaking ships-in-bottles, and when she is running toward the gazebo and the grassy field turns into water. I like any CGI involving water - or fire (like Knowing).

  25. You know that grass turning to water was the only other moment I had in my head to mention. It was pretty freaky and looked great on the big screen.

  26. Susie caused a man to die, so she is going to Hell for murder. If Susie is able to stay in purgatory and cause death, George will also be able to linger in purgatory and cause death just like she did. Susie is also a rapist because she used another human body for sex. At the end, Susie is just as evil as George. Susie is going to Hell!

  27. Wow. Intellectually I see what you're saying, but that's some disturbingly sick logic.


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