One part spiritual sentimentalism, one part thriller, one part heartbreak hotel and one heaping part cathartic revenge caper, this Peter Jackson film treats the afterlife as an unpredictable land of whimsy and simultaneous horror.
There was a time not so long ago that kids walked home from school alone after dark. And no one panicked if they were a little late for dinner.
But for the Salmons, 14-year-old Susie's savage murder shattered all semblance of serenity.
In life, Susie was a pretty, vibrant teen who dreamed of being a wildlife photographer and bravely saved her little brother, Buckley, from choking to death. In life, Susie was about to have her first date with Ray. In life, Susie had the rest of her life to look forward to.
That was before December 6, 1973.
Susie herself tells us that this was the day she died. She can do so because she's in the "in-between." Not quite heaven and certainly not the morgue, this physically beautiful but emotionally turbulent limbo takes its atmospheric cues from Susie's feelings in the "blue horizon between heaven and earth." And Susie senses that she's come to this middle ground to finish something.
In the in-between, fear and rage invoke coldness and decay. Peace and joy invoke sunshine and warmth. But Susie's feelings also affect her family—and sometimes violently so. Her father, Jack, is particularly influenced and, because of Susie's subconscious thirst for revenge, he becomes consumed with solving his daughter's murder. Through his own intuition and Susie's subtle otherworldly influence, he gradually deduces that the family's regimented neighbor George Harvey is the killer.
[Note: The following sections contain spoilers.]
The Salmon family is a loving one. And though they struggle—Mom, for example, moves away for a time to distance herself from Jack's grief and compulsion to solve the case—they try their best to grapple realistically with Susie's death and not let it destroy them, too. Before her death, Susie and Jack share a special father-daughter bond. Flamboyant Grandma Lynn, clawing her way out of the wreckage of her own life, even manages to provide a little bit of structure by doing her best to care for the fractured family.
As mentioned, Susie saves her brother's life with quick thinking and some plucky driving (years before she's old enough for a license). Jack proves over and over again just how much he cares for his kids, both before Susie's death and after. Susie's sister, Lindsay, risks her life to try to bring closure to the unsolved murder mystery.
The in-between has become a favorite Hollywood location. Movies such as What Dreams May Come and Ghost linger there, as do the spirits in TV shows such as Ghost Whisperer. Almost always people end up there because they have unfinished business to attend to, be it emotional distress, relational calamity … or a mystery.
The Lovely Bones conjures a world that is simultaneously beautiful, frightening, welcoming and fickle. From this place, Susie can begin to deal with her own loss. And she can also make ethereal contact with the people she's left behind. Usually what that looks like is a dim reflection in a pane of glass, a whispering wind or a flickering shadow. But in one case she manages to "possess" a living person, taking her over for just long enough to receive that longed-for first kiss that was wrenched away from her while alive.
Susie's dad and a girl from school (whom we are told can more easily than others accept the dead among the living) both see Susie briefly. Buckley claims she came into his room and kissed him. A withered flower comes back to life in Jack's hand as Susie wills it to blossom.
Susie mentions that another teenage girl who died of leukemia is also in the in-between, but not in Susie's—since each afterlife is tailored for individuals or groups with a common bond. Because of that, Susie meets Harvey's other victims, one of whom tells her not to look back at earth. Instead, she must move beyond the in-between into heaven. Susie resists, wanting both revenge and to help her family make it through.
Juxtaposed against Susie's hatred for Harvey is a poster in her bedroom that reads, "Happiness is loving your enemies." Susie will have none of that. And it's implied that she's able to finally exact her "justice" by mystical means: In the real world, just as we see it happen in the in-between, an icicle snaps and falls, setting off a chain of events that leads to Harvey's death.
Grandma Lynn mentions Buddhist beliefs. Susie, still alive, casually dismisses her.
Grandma Lynn's advice is rarely worth taking, especially when she asks Susie whether she's kissed Ray yet. Susie's answer is no, and her grandma wonders what the hold up is—telling her to "just have fun" with the boy.
Jack and his wife are seen in bed together kissing. (He's wearing a T-shirt and she's in a modest nightgown.) Ray and Susie finally get their supernatural kiss. Lindsay and her boyfriend kiss, too. A girl is scolded by her art teacher for sketching a nude woman—which he waves around for the camera to see.
After luring Susie into an underground bunker he has built as a trap, Harvey grabs her when she tries to escape. She kicks him, but is no match for his strength. Her murder is implied by images of her being thrown to the ground, a blood-soaked bag getting stuffed into a small safe and a blood-spattered bathroom where a straight razor sits on a sink.
A man is brutally beaten with a baseball bat. And we see his bloodied body afterwards.
The corpses of Harvey's other victims are seen, some partially buried or floating in water. He tries to capture Lindsay, viciously chasing her. She falls from an upstairs window while trying to elude him.
Jack hammers a hole through Harvey's back door while in a rage. He breaks several bottles (the kind that have ships built inside), and when he does, giant representations of them crash into the rocky shoreline of Susie's in-between.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word. Once each, God's name is mouthed and Jesus' abused. A use each of "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑," "p‑‑‑ off" and "jerk-off."
Drug and Alcohol Content
In an apparent stab at providing a little comic relief, Grandma Lynn blows cigarette smoke like an industrial flue and downs enough hard liquor to stock a store. Clearly an alcoholic, she goes so far as snatching up cooking sherry. She even chides Jack for not drinking. And she downs pills of some kind with her booze.
Other Negative Elements
A teenage boy intimidates his girlfriend, bullying her verbally. Harvey's seen naked in a tub of filthy water.
In an interview with MTV, Susan Sarandon describes her impression of The Lovely Bones like this: "I haven't figured out the tone of the movie; I'm still trying to figure out exactly what it is. It's going to be a strange jumble of things."
Hmmm. From the mouths of seasoned superstars.
In its own way the film gently honors the memory of murder victims. And it never for a second glamorizes or tries to "get under the skin" of the killer—as so many entertainments do these days. Still, The Lovely Bones doesn't seem to know what its real purpose is. One part spiritual sentimentalism, one part thriller, one part heartbreak hotel and one heaping part cathartic revenge caper, it treats the afterlife as an unpredictable land of whimsy and simultaneous horror. Disregarding God and any sort of biblical view of heaven, it grasps at straws to create its own interpretation of justice and life after death.
Its target audience? Oddly, teen girls.
According to the Los Angeles Times, The Lovely Bones (based on Alice Sebold's best-selling 2002 novel) "tells the tale of a 14-year-old girl who is raped and murdered, then watches over her family and killer from the afterlife. Most people involved in the film originally thought it would primarily appeal to older moviegoers. But after test research on the movie, Paramount found there was a potentially hidden audience of females between 13 and 25."
It's reported that director Peter Jackson (of The Lord of the Rings fame) decided to mitigate some of the novel's violence in order to make the story more palatable for his own 13-year-old daughter.
Maybe this explains why all Susie wants to do when she assumes bodily form again for a moment is … kiss Ray.
That was the moment when I felt suddenly very grateful for the real heaven, where even our greatest earthly pleasures will pale into insignificance when we see the glory of God. Where worldly desires or hurts melt away because our every longing and need are met in Christ. Where, as it says in Isaiah, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him."
That heaven is where no one cares about kisses anymore. And, thankfully, that heaven is the one awaiting those who have accepted Christ as Lord and Savior.
The Lovely Bones' heaven offers little more than a great, grassy field, a towering, magical tree, and sweet nothings whispered between two teens who don't even really know each other all that well.