The Lovely Bones ** 1/2
Peter Jackson's mystical thriller is about closure, but offers little of that. Though properly chilling when it's supposed to be, it's a film whose effects, script and performances keep it at arm's length when it should be moving. Saoirse Ronan stars as a murdered girl stuck in purgatory, watching her family struggle and splinter over her death.
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It won't surprise you that to New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson, heaven, or at least a lovely version of purgatory, looks an awful lot like the forests and valleys of New Zealand. But in this kiwi afterlife, topiary balloons float by trees whose golden leaves wash away as flocks of goldfinches, and lighthouses light the way across dreamboat harbors with waters of shimmering glass.
That's where Saoirse Ronan ("Atonement") spends much of the new thriller "The Lovely Bones." She plays Susie "Salmon, like the fish." Straight off she lets us know that "I was 14 when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."
She's stuck in purgatory, watching her family struggle and splinter over her death. Her father (Mark Wahlberg) obsesses over catching her killer, her mother flees his obsession even as Susie's sister (Rose McIver) falls under the gaze of the neighbor who committed the murder.
Jackson's mystical thriller is about closure, but offers little of that. Though properly chilling when it's supposed to be, it's a film whose effects, script and performances keep it at arm's length when it is supposed to be moving.
Before that fateful day, Susie was a happy teen living in a happy home (Rachel Weisz is mom). She swooned over school dreamboat Ray (Reece Ritchie), dreamed of her first kiss and practiced becoming "a wildlife photographer" with her cheap Kodak.
But "I wasn't safe," she narrates. "A man in my neighborhood was watching me."
The dread we feel awaiting the crime - told in flashback - is heartbreaking. We meet the killer (Stanley Tucci, in a low-key, "normal" serial-killer turn). We see him prepare. We know what's coming.
What we don't see in advance is how the murder will affect others, the ways Susie is felt by those who loved her - glimpses straight out of "Ghost." She can't pass on messages, can't point them to the killer, can't have her revenge.
"Bones" is Jackson's "What Lies Beneath," that crossroads movie when a filmmaker who has marshaled an army to do other projects steps back and tries to make something leaner, simpler. Like Robert Zemeckis before him, Jackson overwhelms the thoughtful, introspective nature of the material with whistles and bells - heavenly effects that scream "overkill."
Zemeckis moved on to make gigantic, motion capture enterprises such as "The Polar Express," techno-films. Jackson may yet end up returning to Middle Earth. If this movie tells him anything, it's that his skills are as sharp as ever, but that he and his screenwriting team have lost the human sense of scale.