Although intriguing for a number of reasons, not least its affirmation of an afterlife, the screen version of Alice Sebold's best-selling 2002 novel "The Lovely Bones" (Paramount)—primarily a somber drama centering on the murder of a child in suburban Pennsylvania in the early 1970s—eventually becomes scattershot as it attempts to blend disparate genres.
Narrating events from beyond the grave, and recounting the crime perpetrated against her by neighborhood psychopath and loner George Harvey (a squirm-provoking Stanley Tucci) is once-ebullient 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). While the lead-up to Susie's fatal encounter with Harvey is unsettling, and strongly suggests a sexual motive, viewers are spared all but the gruesome aftermath as the killer bathes away the abundant, telltale blood.
Since her death, Susie's unresolved rage and desire for revenge have left her trapped in a picturesque purgatory that the script—penned by director Peter Jackson with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens—refers to as "the In-Between."
Also preventing Susie's progress to the higher reaches of this visually rich, though theologically vague Elysium is her ongoing attachment to the family she left behind. Thus she watches helplessly as her devastated father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) becomes obsessed with solving her slaying, thereby obtaining the redress the local police, led by Detective Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli), seem unable to secure.
With the passage of a few years, Susie's sensitive but determined younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) joins her father in the hunt, and the scenes of their sporadic pursuit of Harvey—one of them resulting, unexpectedly, in a painfully violent confrontation—pull the film off in the direction of a cat-and-mouse suspense yarn. As encouraged by Susie's distant yearnings, their refusal to let Harvey go unpunished also suggests a morality tale about the limits of human justice and the dangers of fixation.
Unable to cope with her husband's mania, Susie's equally distraught mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) departs for a stint as a California fruit picker. Abigail's exit opens the way for the appearance of boozy but sensible Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon), whose chain-smoking, martini-guzzling and thoroughly inept methods of housekeeping, intended for comic relief, create another distracting shift in tone.
The film contains themes of perversion and crime, gory images, scenes of harsh violence, brief nongraphic marital lovemaking, at least one use of profanity and of the F-word and a few crude and crass terms. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
John Mulderig is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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