Peter Jackson may be getting the worst reviews of his career since Meet the Feebles, but this won't be one of them. The Lovely Bones totally lives up to the high standards Jackson set with his epic Lord of the Rings and King Kong and his emotionally powerful Heavenly Creatures.
Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is murdered. As her family grieves the loss and hopes to find her killer (Stanley Tucci), Susie looks on from the afterlife. She can't quite move on to heaven, and she influences the living world whenever she can. Sometimes she helps lead her family to clues. Other times she simply offers them comfort.
It's a tough subject, but elegant, smooth filmmaking keeps us comfortable when we know bad things are going to happen. It's like Peter Jackson himself is putting his hand on our shoulder, telling us it's okay.
The supernatural visuals are just awesome, but in a subtle way. The first images of the afterlife are just slightly off: empty and fuzzy, with a voice-over echo. As the afterlife develops, it becomes surreal, but not abstract. It's all stuff we know, just put together in unnatural ways (an underwater house, fields undulating like ocean waves). And come on, giant ships in bottles is frigging awesome. Susie's signs to the living are beautiful.
In the real world, Jackson crafts simple visuals. The killer's face is just out of frame while he makes all the preparations in a montage. The viewer feels like "just let us see him already." It's so interesting to see characters eye each other through the windows of a dollhouse. That makes the standard police interrogation dialogue go by. Focus on the giant fingers turning pages of a scrapbook offers an unusual perspective on mundane reality. Jackson crafts some masterful suspense scenes too.
Tucci is so good. Beyond the creepiest combover in cinema history, you actually buy his sweet act. You know he's the one that's going to murder her, but when he's playing the lonely old man, heck, I'd go into his dungeon, too.
The story is about grieving on both sides. The survivors have to find a way to live with the most horrible tragedy imaginable. Susie too has to find a way to let go of her earthly contacts. It's a profound spiritual quest and an insightful look at human coping. It's never dour.
I know some of the scenes that were changed or taken out of the book completely. In the book, Susie was raped and murdered. There's no distasteful rape in the film. Just murder is fine for the purposes of a cinema narrative. As for the other omissions, what? You want every single scene from your favorite book in the movie? Well, you can't have it. Get over it.
The film can feel like highlights of a more epic time frame, but those highlights were chosen by the most insightful expert on storytelling. Maybe there could be a miniseries version of the whole story, but I wouldn't want to watch that. This is exactly enough to make the impact the story warrants. Since it works so well in this format, maybe the book didn't need all those extra scenes. Ever think of that?