"Movies never are easy but this one felt like it was going to
be difficult to adapt in a satisfying way. But that only forces
you to be more creative. And after King Kong and Lord of
the Rings I just wanted something that would be different."
Director, Peter Jackson
Heaven's a real bastard. It is both a preposterous premise and a pathetic promise, a guarantee of a service that even the Pope cannot be forced to refund if expectation (and science) makes a nonsense of actuality. It's a place that by its very nature is simply impossible to imagine. Heaven is… Well, what is heaven to you? Clouds? Clouds are the first elements of a universal heaven (thank you, two millennia of art – oh, and Constantine). There's probably a large, old, white bearded bloke lording it up all over the place too. To me, heaven always seemed such an unimaginative concept, dreary and banal, the metaphysical equivalent of unleavened white bread or Ryvita with no option of spread. Give me Powell and Pressburger's black and white spiral galaxy any day. It's also, like Orwell's Room 101, probably so subjective as to make a cinematic rendering defiantly character based. It is, in Jackson's The Lovely Bones, the murdered girl's fantasy limbo. So in the director's imagination (one which has come under a serious amount of critical stick this past week) it's Susie Salmon's fevered post-fatal trauma illusion that gives flesh and scenery to her after-death physical existence. Unfortunately, there are glimmers here of a natural world that seemed more appropriate for Middle Earth and boy, is Jackson getting some flack for that… Cut the man some slack, Jack. He's only trying to entertain us.
It's a shame. If James Cameron had directed this film, would he be guilty of Pandorising the afterlife? Probably. Imagine Michael Bay's interpretation – heaven as Citröen autobot personifications? Jesus. Let's ignore Jackson as auteur (despite his 8mm camera wielding cameo) and try to get past some significant baggage. Yes, Peter Jackson directed the immensely successful Lord of the Rings trilogy. Film buffs also know that the man directed some of the sickest fantasy gore-fests this side of Saw XIV (with considerably more wit I have to say). His Heavenly Creatures marked a character driven departure, a sort of calling card of cinematic respectability. So it's no surprise that he wanted to take a crack at adapting Alice Sebold's novel about a murdered girl who resides in the afterlife looking down on her family's disintegration, healing and redemption. There is nothing ‘wrong' with Jackson's version of Susie's afterlife. The problem is not an over abundance of CG nor specifically a design issue (there are stunningly beautiful and hauntingly surreal images throughout the movie). It's an empathy dilemma.
This is a film about a murdered teenager so why is it so difficult to engage? Minutes before the terrible deed (a scene achingly difficult to watch knowing the outcome and having read the book), Jackson cuts away sparing us the rape and cut-throat razored end of Susie's life. Initially I agreed with the director's decision to spare us the details and now I'm not so sure. Please let me state up front that what I mean is that I'm not so sure being artistically coy was artistically the correct decision. Why? We do not nor do we ever find out how Susie died (in the novel, it's explicit). So the movie trips over a kerb of its own making here. The horror of the actual act is quickly transcended and no, I am not advocating Jackson's staging of a child rape/murder for my own entertainment. But as a director I felt that it's well within his actual job description to make us feel the horror a little more than a faux escape does in his own movie. I know we are not in Funny Games territory here but there's still something to say/show about this kind of psychotic sexual violence so we can engage more. And I'm not talking about a remote controlled breaking of the fourth wall. How to do this? That's one for the director to figure out.
As soon as Susie's safe and dead (yes, safe and dead – that's just how it feels and it really shouldn't) then it's only the disbelief, grief and the ‘get-on-with-it-grandmother' that anchors us emotionally. Mother Rachel Weisz can't handle the experience and flees. Mark Wahlberg's father simply takes on simmering-to-explode revenge duties and Susan Sarandon's chain-smoking, whiskey-slurping grand maternal home help seems like she's wandered in from a different movie. There's no doubting the talent of the young Atonement actress Saoirse Ronan as Susie and yet anchored in her unreal reality, she's disconnected from the rest of the movie just as securely as she's now lost to her family. She's stuck in the Imaginarium of Doctor Jacksonasus. I'm not sure the two worlds ever connect despite impossible reflections and whispers and cries across the gulf dividing both. It is literally (and I use the word hesitatingly) as if she's in a different movie herself and in so many ways, she is. It's only when we see her back in the world in what must be accepted as a fantasy wish-fulfillment moment does she ever engage with the rest of the cast post death, the cast of the 'other' movie.
Extracting all of this grab-bag of oddly disparate elements leaves us with Stanley Tucci's über-creep with full on suffering psycho-tache, wide angle lens coverage of shifty looks and a wardrobe congealed from an amalgamation of Top Shop and a book of knitting patterns. If he wore any more nylon, he'd have no need of the electric chair. Jackson has decided to vividly vilify his villain from the off. There is no sympathy or attempt at a character study. All we know about Mr. Harvey is that he preys on young girls. I'm not asking for a full movie of nut-job justification (something Hannibal failed at quite alarmingly, blunting the cannibalistic character instead of bringing him into sharper focus) but a few hints at what made him into this unspeakable predator might have beefed up the stakes a bit. He's woefully easy to despise and, one assumes, Jackson never wanted any restraint and Tucci is another talent who's been shoved into a cliché and wears it as well as could be expected. I'm not decrying the performances of any of the fine acting talent on display, just the context in which Jackson requires them to play. Even the tallest can't stand up straight if their landlord has lowered the ceilings.
Having reviewed M recently, it also struck me that Jackson uses the exact same counterpoint to the horror facing Susie – no greater proof of the timelessness of Lang's classic. In this way it makes Elsie, the first victim of Peter Lorre's and Bones' Susie artistic death-mates. Both murders are intercut with a loving parent/parents preparing the stuff of life – food for the young child who will never taste it. I wonder if that was intentional or just good/bad timing – that most children taken are usually first registered missing when late for a meal. In M, the killer's fate is never explicitly stated. In the book and film of The Lovely Bones, the killer's fate is all too explicit pointing to a cinematically friendly cosmic balance (evil as a force that must create an equal and opposite reaction). Alas morality has no physical laws to adhere to or obey. It makes the killer's resolution almost a deus ex machina in both manifestations of the tale. This moment in the film is the very essence of ambiguity. Are the film-makers suggesting the spirit of Susie Salmon created this outcome? Visually, this is hinted at all the way through the film. While you may applaud the payback, it feels tacked on as if both print and moving picture audiences could not accept the idea that monsters often do ‘get away with it'. Surprisingly, the CG animation in this specific scene is not as accomplished as Jackson's has been in the past.
Peter Jackson has made a very curious movie – a hybrid surrealistic treatise on the effect of grief on a family. Along the way he folds in elements of several diverse genres; serial killer, police procedural, revenge served cold (with a baseball bat) and teen romance. If it was an experiment to shoehorn as many cinematic tropes into the mix as possible, it has failed from my own point of view. But the fact that Jackson is stepping out on to the edge of something original should still please and encourage others to take brave steps. Directors in his position are not obliged to forward the art form. Credit is due. He mixed, mixed, mixed, matched, matched, matched and crossed his fingers. On some days, you get a wonderful hog roast. On others, all that are left are the bones as lovely as they are…