The Sweet Hereafter
Peter Jackson's 'Lovely Bones' imagines a world beyond the grave at a time when we need it the most.
Peter Jackson's Lovely Bones imagines a world beyond the grave at a time when we need it the most.
Somewhere out there exists the in-between, a dreamy world bordering earth and the afterlife where loved ones lost find refuge. It’s a place Peter Jackson wants you to see. And you should.
In his latest movie, Jackson, the director behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy, offers a comforting—and much-needed—escape from today’s oft-times grave reality. The Lovely Bones, a screen adaptation of the best-selling novel by Alice Sebold, is a story about life after death. Set in Norristown, Pa., during the early 1970s, the film stars Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon, a teenage girl who is raped and killed by a neighbor. Her violent death takes the viewer on an unexpected journey, a vivid tour through the hereafter with Susie as its stumbling guide.
Refusing to surrender to the white light, Susie manages to linger in heaven’s waiting room, a cloudland realm full of remnants from the life she once knew. There, seasons change with each step taken. A blooming flower in the sky is a substitute for the sun. Massive beach balls litter the landscape, while ships in bottles thrash about the ocean. She is Alice after death and Wonderland is the way to heaven. In her ethereal explorations, Susie tries to come to grips with her newfound existence: “I wasn’t gone. I was alive, in my own perfect world.”
But the world she left behind is crumbling.
Her Shakespeare-loving high school beau does his best to forget her by leaning on the shoulder of a clairvoyant classmate. And Susie's family becomes divided in the wake of her murder. Her parents, Jack and Abigail, played by Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, begin to drift apart, each consumed with feelings of guilt about their daughter's death. (Wahlberg is unconvincing as the grief-stricken father, twisting his face into over-the-top distraught contortions that verge on the comical.)
Meanwhile, there’s the film’s villain, Mr. Harvey, the quiet, dollhouse-building neighbor who somehow manages to evade suspicion from the police. (Really, no one thinks it’s odd that he’s a grown man constructing miniature mansions for kids?) Doing little to dispel paranoia about the creepy-guy-across-the-street, Stanley Tucci gives a frighteningly believable portrayal of a pedophile/serial killer. His chilling behavior is veiled behind closed curtains when he retreats to the basement to relive the memory of Susie’s murder and stare at the safe where he’s kept her bones. As he hides in cornfields and ducks behind shadows, only his victim (and the audience) bears witness to his perversion. In public, he’s an expert at blending into the banal suburban setting. Will Susie’s enduring presence be enough to bring her killer to justice?
The Lovely Bones is no typical murder mystery; the viewer knows whodunit from the beginning. Rather, the suspense comes from watching Susie’s family try to piece together some semblance of a normal life without her in it. In the aftermath of the Salmon family tragedy, surprising bonds are built in the strangest of circumstances.
Despite its darker moments, at its heart, the film gives a lesson in coping; how to let go of a life unexpectedly taken. It’s a lesson we all could use, especially considering the bleak headlines of the day: Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake, Mexico’s gruesome drug wars, the tumult in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the random shooting sprees here in the United States. If only for a couple hours, The Lovely Bones, offers a welcome respite from death’s finality.
Saaret E. Yoseph is assistant editor of The Root.