Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Lovely Bones

"My Name is Salmon. Like 'Swimming Upstream.'"

I had a heated movie discussion with a friend about "Mystic River" one evening. "Explain to me why you don't like it," I said, genuinely curious.

For those who haven't seen it (and it is a tough slog), it's Clint Eastwood's film of the Dennis Lehane novel about the death of a hoodlum's daughter and his steps to exact revenge. The object of the hood's scrutiny becomes his childhood friend who was kidnapped by pedophiles as a child, a violent act that has colored his adulthood. Tough stuff, but I have high regard for the film, despite the broad (and Oscar-winning) acting by Sean Penn and Tim Robbins.

But the friend couldn't abide it. "Why?" I kept persisting. And finally it boiled down to "there are some subjects—like the victimization of children—that have no place in movies. Now, I could point out all sorts of films, from "
The Wizard of Oz" to "Empire of the Sun," that, unpleasant though they might be at times, convey the theme and are still great films. However, Peter Jackson's film of "The Lovely Bones" had me recalling this conversation, and sympathizing with my friend's attitude.

The award-winning and best-selling novel tells the story of a murder victim—a child of 14—and her experience after death, watching the effects her non-existence has on her family and murderer, as her sense of unfinished business keeps her tied to a "between-place," unwilling to move on, until there is some sense of closure on several fronts, those being her family's efforts to find her killer, her killer's obsession with her and with other family members, the internment of her corpse, and that first kiss with the boy she was falling in love with.


Uh...we'll get back to that.

Jackson film differs slightly from the novel (the parents' story is given an upbeat resolution and it's a first kiss, rather than a sexual experience with the boy), but, however much he tries to perfume it, it's still the story of a rotting corpse in a bank-safe. That may sound brutal, but that's what "The Lovely Bones" is, constantly winging back and forth from the girl's conception of heaven (which Jackson conveys as an ever-evolving series of candy-colored landscapes depending on the girl's mood, somewhat reflective of her earthly experiences) and the mordant reality back on terra firma. The lack of satisfying resolutions in some of the cases has a cruel feel to them and, perversely, that may be the only saving grace from the relentlessly oppressive pity-party of "The Lovely Bones"—there is no justice, shit happens and sometimes it happens appropriately in some karmic equation, but it's not the Universe's job to make us feel good by balancing the scales. Jackson provides some lex talionis (at the demand of preview audiences, bless their little Roman hearts), but it's an indifferent cosmos, not a buttoned-up drama, and certainly not a wonderful after-life.

That's the underlying theme of the story, which is creepy and morbid enough, but
you throw in Jackson's interpretation and it turns downright cloying. Jackson and his writing collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens make it dreamy and moony in that hormone-addled manner that appeals to young teenage girls (and made the "Twilight" series a phenom') and (lest I be accused of being sexist) not far from the ├╝ber-romantic manner Francis Ford Coppola filmed his gang story "The Outsiders."* And Jackson is a precise director, one who delves into the details, rather than the over-arching idea. This helps when given a vague impressionistic series of novels like Tolkien's, but it also leads to things like his monstrous 3-hour "King Kong" (Jackson's favorite film is the 1933 version), where the journey to Skull Island is interminable, sequences that flew by in the original drag on and on, and the general deep-love lethargy of the thing drops it like the big ape to the side-walk. "The Lovely Bones" is a series of close-ups, swooping camera moves that graze the edges of things and catch life in clusters and clumps and fussy little details. It has jokey little references to Jackson's other films and a cameo of him that seems indulgent. It's in those little moments that you wonder if the director has forgotten he's making a movie about a girl who's been raped and murdered.

The audience is spared the actual attack (in a spiritual slight-of-hand that sets up the way she can interact with the living that's a wee a bit...convenient), no thanks for small favors. But the creepiest thing about the movie, beyond the trivialization of an After-Life as merely a CGI Disney Channel fantasy (or worse, it reminded me of the land of the Teletubbies), the brutish smugness of its tone, or its moony-goony morbid romanticism is that, of all the characters in the scenario, the one we are given the most information about is the killer. Despite the herculean work of Saoirse Ronan (she was the youngest of the Briony's in "Atonement"**) as Our Girl in Purgatory, Susie Salmon, where the film-maker gets his jollies is showing the planning, the drafting, the intricate handiwork and the general creepiness of the serial killer hiding in plain sight. That he is portrayed by one of the better actors in the cast doesn't help. Mark Wahlberg, who can be quite good, here has the same puppy-earnestness that threatens to turn him into this generation's Steve Guttenberg, Rachel Weisz seems lost and her complicated motivations are lost between edits somewhere. Worst of all is Susan Sarandon as Susie's grandmother, meant to be comic relief, but who is so cluelessly self-centered and destructive, one can't help the stray thought that she had a hand in the killing.

I haven't read the novel, so I can't account for the interest—evidently it is written well, but that doesn't translate to the screen. It shares one unique aspect that Jackson is a bit successful in communicating—the empathetic relationship that victims of the same attacker must feel for each other. It stems from author
Alice Sebold's own violent attack, and her learning subsequently that an earlier victim had been killed. Certainly a novel life-experience, and probably too common in these berserk days. But, whatever empathy in the original is ground up in the film-making machinery. Perhaps it shouldn't have been made at all.

The only reason I can think of for the film to exist (outside of the monetary gain of the makers) is as a cautionary tale of warning to gullible teens...and fulsome directors.

"The Lovely Bones" is a Cable-Watcher.

* Coppola filmed two S.E. Hinton "young adult" stories, "The Outsiders" and "Rumble Fish." "The Outsiders," he said, was filmed in the romantic way teenagers would make it, "Rumble Fish" the way he wanted to make it.

** It is a fine performance, and Roran at the time of filming two years ago, still had the awkward duckling look of a developing teen. At the premiere, she looks like she could be a Redgrave


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Sigh. Another person who doesn't like it. Still, you do explain your dislikes better than most, your argument's almost air-tight. I need to mull it over before I make a proper response, but in regards to Harvey being the character we know the most [interesting point]. Doesn't it only seem like that. The film seems to focus less on a backstory for anyone and just "starts" if you understand. Still, good write-up even though I'm miffed that you didn't like it.

PS. LOVED Mystic River, though I don't like Clint Eastwood.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Gotta call 'em as I see 'em, Andrew. I think you get much more background on Harvey than you do anyone else. You see his methods, his practices, his may not spend the most time with him, but in the end, he's the guy whose motivations are the clearest. I couldn't say that about Susie's family and friends.

I look forward to your post-mull arguments. This one troubled me (I had to go see another movie—"Broken Embraces"—to get it out of my head) and I'd like to see an opposing view--I haven't read any other reviews yet.

We'll be starting a look at Eastwood's directorial career starting (hopefully) this week.

Thanks again for the post and your continued support.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I reviewed it a few weeks ago, although the review seems inadequate now:

Okay, one point to rebut - the "romanticised" heaven. I figure, because Susie is 14 her heaven reflects that. Remember she talks about heaven using the possessive pronoun. This is what she perceives it would be like, which is why I figure it's like that.

And I actually found the we were initially spared the details of the rape as she literally became a ghost was quite profound.

But you're right about calling them as you see them. I did NOT like Up in the Air.

Yojimbo_5 said...

I buy the "my heaven" concept (even though it's inhabited by others)—that's why I made the crack about the Disney Channel heaven. But the whole movie has a romanticized morbidity that's made for an unhealthy teen wallow, not just the heaven concept.

We all walk into these things with the highest hopes and objectivity--I don't enter a movie theater thinking about track records--and walk out with our sight altered. But we all see things differently, and I've always found the differences more interesting. It's like that scene from "Life of Brian:" "Yes! We are all individuals!"