After helming The Lord of the Rings
film triology, Jackson will forever be associated with Middle-earth. The filmmaker has moved on but, apparently, not from his interest in fictional worlds. There are no elves or wizards or hobbits in The Lovely Bones
, no battles for world domination or one ring to rule them all. The alternate world in this film, which is based on the bestseller by Alice Sebold, is the netherworld – the place between life and death, Earth and heaven, the place where souls linger when they are not yet ready to part from life. The storyline is horrifyingly disturbing and by all rights should be a heart-tugger: In 1973, a 14-year-old girl is murdered by a serial killer, and although her body is never recovered, her corporeal presence lingers in the in-between world observing her family. A story about the unbreakable bonds between parents and children, a story about thwarted justice and monstrous revelations is diverted by Jackson into a story about the CGI wow factor of his netherworld. Colors are drenched and cornfields undulate provocatively despite their swampy firmament, tree leaves fall away only to take flight as birds, the horizon is indeed eternal and the landscape can be stark and foreboding or candy-colored and pop-drenched. Jackson appears to have devoted all his energies into creating these alterna-world images but, sadly, when you get right down to them, his images are fairly prosaic and commonplace. His attention to the post-mortem wanderings of Susie Salmon (Ronan) caused Jackson to short-shrift his surviving characters, which is a shame because their performances are all very good yet fail to connect emotionally with the audience. How the devastating story of the senseless murder of a 14-year-old could be stripped of emotion is a feat in itself, though one of dubious achievement. Wahlberg delivers some of his best work as Susie’s ever-faithful dad and mom Weisz is at her most compliant and integrative. Ronan, as she demonstrated in Atonement
, is one of the most accomplished young actors of today. Tucci, who never fails to impress, shows his range this year by playing both The Lovely Bones
’ nebbishy murderer and Julia Child’s love-besotted husband in Julie & Julia
, while Imperioli grows out his sideburns to play the supportive detective on the case. Sarandon, however, as the hip, boozing grandma, gets the short end of the stick by having her performance, though delightful in itself, serve as the film’s comic relief. It grates all the more because without experiencing the deep emotions and tensions one might expect from this story there is no need for comic relief. Why Susie would want to stick around with these deadbeats is the movie’s only real mystery. Jackson needs to rediscover the human element of film.