Peter Jackson is one of the masters of horror - but nothing in Dead/Alive is one-tenth as horrifying as the pedophile serial killer in The Lovely Bones. And that horror overwhelms Jackson's flimsy attempts to surround it with fantasy. Spoilers...
We already ran an early review of The Lovely Bones by author John Shirley, which praised the film's blend of surrealism and suspense - so consider this a dissenting view. The Lovely Bones gives us Peter Jackson venturing outside his comfort zone, into territory he's only touched on in the past with Heavenly Creatures, and it doesn't quite work.
Based on the mega-successful novel by Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones is about Susie Salmon, a perfect girl (literally, she has no flaws) who's murdered by a pedophile serial killer who's already claimed something like a dozen girls before. It's the early 1970s, and the narrator makes sure we know that people weren't as aware of the dangers of child molesters back then.
The first half hour of the movie is absolutely harrowing - we know Susie is going to die, because her ever-present voiceover narration tells us so. And we really grow to like and care for her, as she comes closer to her doom at the hands of Stanley Tucci's Mr. Harvey. Susie is literally on the verge of her first kiss, with Ray, a cute theater geek who calls himself The Moor after Othello. It's her last moment of total purity, and Mr. Harvey traps her, seizing her innocence for his own depraved pleasure and then killing her.
Movies can show us mass murder, genocide and other almost unimaginable crimes. But it's hard to imagine a monster more revolting than George Harvey, especially in this day and age when child sexuality is so commodified and hysteria over pedophilia is at its peak. Stanley Tucci wrings the most creepiness out of every snuffle of his character's nose, every little stare at the young girls he victimizes and every little smirk at the thought of trapping someone less powerful than himself. Just as Susie Salmon has no flaws, George Harvey is pure menace and covetousness.
And then Susie dies, and the movie pretty much falls apart.
Peter Jackson goes kind of nuts with the CG whimsy of the afterlife way-station that Susie finds herself in. Susie meets Holly, another girl that George Harvey raped and murdered, and they cavort around a series of Teletubbies sets, where the sun is a flower or the landscape moves around weirdly. There is a hill that's a whole globe, there's a tree that represents Heaven, where Susie's going to end up, there are verdant swathes of impossible Elysian Fields.
And occasionally, the darkening real world, where everyone is mourning Susie's death and failing to catch her killer, intrudes on Susie's beautiful afterlife, and breaks in with giant imagery - Susie's dad breaks his ships in bottles, so huge ships in bottles run aground in Susie's afterlife. Susie's killer throws her charm bracelet into the water, so huge charm bracelet thingies rain down, etc.
I sort of get that the excessively pretty imagery of Susie's afterlife is supposed to represent her purity and sweetness continuing in the afterlife, and she has to let go of this world and her unfinished business so she can move on to the Afterlife, Our Town-style. But the more Jackson tries to counterbalance the dreadfulness of the pedophile rapist-murderer with excessively gorgeous butterflies, the more it just feels wrong.
In a way, it feels like Jackson's trying to do something similar to what Guillermo Del Toro did so masterfully in Pan's Labyrinth: show the pure horror of the "real" world through a young girl's eyes, and then show that awfulness refracted through a prism of weird fantasy. But where Del Toro's fantasy world is rife with equal horror to the "real" world, and has its own rules that bring their own urgency, Jackson's afterlife feels sort of irrelevant and overly confectionary.
The crux of the problem is this: when Susie Salmon is alive, we desperately don't want to die. We know she's going to die, but we still hope, against all hope, that her fate will change and she'll escape what the narrator has already told us is coming.
But once she's dead, we don't really care what happens to her any more. When her ghost tumbles into a scary dark place, there's no terror because we know she's already dead, and nothing can hurt her any more. When she cavorts around with Holly through various candy pastures, it just feels bland and gratuitous. Worse - it feels like Jackson is telling us to be Zen about the whole thing, because off in the beautiful afterlife, the pedo rapist guy only bothers you if you let him. Or something.
And it's just really hard to be Zen or philosophical or look at big sky-flowers when you're spending the rest of the time watching the surviving members of the Salmon family grieving and acting out, and the serial killer getting away with it. You might think it could totally work, the spiritual journey through a sweet CG-scape balancing out the mourning and rage back on Earth — but the CG afterlife just feels too flimsy and inconsequential. And Susie's attempts to communicate with people back on Earth are too sporadic and ineffectual for us to get interested in them.
You really only care about one thing after Susie dies — you want the bastard who did it to get caught. Everything else is just window dressing. Even if you're not a vengeful person, the movie rubs your face in the putridness of Stanley Tucci's child-rapist so much, your skin crawls and you want to see him fry. And the movie teases you over and over with the possibility that Tucci will get caught, but he's the fricking Road Runner.
By the way, I read bits of Sebold's novel years ago, but didn't get a chance to read it properly before seeing the movie. I do remember that there's a lot more to the saga of Harvey, the serial killer, and Fenerman, the cop who's so abysmally bad at his job - in the book, Susie's mom has an affair with the cop, while in the movie she goes off and picks fruit. Either way, though, Harvey basically gets away with it for years and years.
You sort of hope that Susie will use her uncanny ghost powers to help people catch Harvey, but her ghost powers are sort of wobbly and ill-defined. She can communicate a little bit, but mostly she's a vague presence, until the end of the movie, where she gets to kiss her almost-boyfriend by occupying someone else's body.
The movie sort of morphs into a weird comedy. Susan Sarandon is breathtaking as the alcoholic, chain-smoking grandma who shows up to take care of the fracturing Salmon family, and every scene Sarandon is in is riotous and brilliant. I would seriously watch a three-hour movie about Sarandon's character, whose cigarettes constantly threaten to burn down the house. And the afterlife scenes get sillier and sillier, as a gazebo at the mall where Susie was supposed to meet Ray floats around through different landscapes.
But whatever we're supposed to be taking away from this movie gets lost - towards the end of the film, Susie says that there's nothing left to her but rage and disappointment, she has nothing left but her anger. And yet, this comes after an hour and a half of her laughing on CG hills and posing for fake afterlife fashion magazines. You can't help saying, "Really? There's nothing left but anger? Then what the hell was the last hour of this movie?"
I guess my takeaway message from this film was, there are some horrors so disturbing, you can't bury them with candy-floss imagery. You can only face up to them.