Susie Salmon, the goofy-named girl at the center of the very serious “The Lovely Bones,” tells us her fate right off the bat: “I was 14 years old when I was murdered, on Dec. 6, 1973.” Um, spoiler alert much??
Played by Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”) in this adaptation of Alice Sebold’s popular 2002 novel, Susie narrates the film from beyond the grave. She’s in a beautiful, computer-generated wonderland, a sort of pre-heaven for people who are still somehow attached to the world. Susie’s lingering is due to the fact that her killer has not been caught, leaving her and her family without closure. The question is whether they can move on without having that final piece of the puzzle. Maybe it wouldn’t help anyway.
That’s a somber topic for a movie, but this story isn’t about the sadness of Susie’s death so much as the hopefulness that can eventually arise out of such sadness. But though that message is expressed in the end, the film doesn’t entirely live up to its emotional potential. We ought to feel the same epiphanies that Susie and her parents feel, not just have them described to us. You may leave the film still wanting some closure.
In life, Susie is an ordinary girl. Flashbacks show her budding interest in photography, her crush on a boy at school (Reece Ritchie), her little quarrels with her parents, Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz). She’s on her way home that fateful afternoon when she runs into Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a man she recognizes from the community, who wants to show her something neat he’s made for the neighborhood kids. She is doomed. She knows who killed her, and what happened to her body — but no one else does.
A year passes with no leads in the case. Jack has taken a hands-on approach, pestering the sympathetic police detective, Fenerman (Michael Imperioli), with hunches and clues about who may have killed his daughter. Abigail has taken the opposite approach, sealing off Susie’s bedroom and living in denial. Jack and Abigail’s marriage is strained. Her mother, boozy old Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon), arrives to help take care of the other children, Lindsey (Rose McIver) and Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale). All the while, Mr. Harvey continues to live in the neighborhood, unsuspected.
This is Peter Jackson’s 10th feature film, but only his second, after “Heavenly Creatures,” not to have fantasy or horror as its foundation. Though he’s a good director overall, you can see where his expertise really shines through: in tense sequences involving the possible discovery of Mr. Harvey’s deeds. Those are liable to make you wish the film really were the mystery-thriller it at first appears to be, rather than the grief drama it actually is. When it comes to pure human emotion, Jackson (who co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with his usual partners, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens), isn’t as adept as he is with more tangible thrills.
He’s great with casting, though — the performances are all spot-on. Fifteen-year-old Saoirse Ronan, already an Oscar nominee for “Atonement,” is impressively mature as Susie, with Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz sympathetic as her grieving parents. As the killer, Stanley Tucci walks the line between creepiness and a parody of creepiness — complete with a “heh-heh” creepy-guy chuckle — but ultimately lands on the unsettling side. You can imagine finding him harmless just as easily as you can imagine being murdered by him.
The film’s mystical elements, including Susie’s afterlife and some brief connections between the spirit world and our world, are shot with Jackson’s famed eye for wonder and magic. If the whole thing feels a little earthbound, it’s not because Jackson’s team lacked sincerity or ambition. Call it a good movie — sure, even a lovely one — that doesn’t quite find what it’s searching for.
B (2 hrs., 15 min.; )