A Nightmare on Their Street

The Lovely Bones
Running time 135 minutes
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring  Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci

I’m no fan of Peter Jackson, but as much as I hated the 2005 remake of King Kong and all of those silly, overrated Lord of the Rings comic books, the New Zealand director’s trademark recipe of fantasy, realism and computerized visual effects turns The Lovely Bones into a thrilling adventure. I love the exquisite blend of chilling murder mystery, suspenseful crime story and domestic melodrama, and especially the way Mr. Jackson lets his imagination run barefoot through the flames to deal with very difficult material indeed. My heart was pounding in my throat from start to finish. Take a Valium. The suspense could kill you.

The movie’s based on the acclaimed Alice Sebold novel about a serial killer on the loose in a placid Pennsylvania neighborhood and a dead 14-year-old girl who helps solve her own murder from beyond the grave; this was challenging stuff on the printed page, almost impossible to adapt to the screen. But great acting, relentless fantasy sequences and dark undercurrents of terror propel the creepy narrative with a cinematic rhythm as sinister as it is mesmerizing. Since we know the identity of the gentle-looking maniac who rapes and kills teenager Susie Salmon on her way home from school, you might think the plot is ruined from the beginning. Wrong. Susie’s friends and her parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) will not abandon the search for the missing child, even after the police have given up. In the movie, like the book, Susie is stuck somewhere between heaven and earth, where she relives her life posthumously, feverishly sending clues and signals about Mr. Harvey, the weird neighbor who watched her unnaturally from the green house down the street, and the fatal day she allowed him to lure her into a candlelit playroom beneath the cornfield, filled with toys, teddy bears and comic books. As the years pass, forensic evidence like the blue jacket and yellow corduroys Susie wore home that day is juxtaposed with the surreal spaces and seasons of an in-between place beyond life where Susie waits to be rescued. This is the blue horizon of Salvador Dali beaches, leaves that blow from tree branches and back again like detachable feathers, a lighthouse rising out of the misty murder scene. The cinematography is breathtaking. Even a shot of a sailing ship in a glass bottle looks like an oil painting brushed with polyurethane. When your hair isn’t standing on end, you always have something to look at, peruse, sift through like a police file. The scene where Susie’s suspicious sister (Rose McIver) sneaks into Mr. Harvey’s house and rummages through his desk drawers while he slowly climbs the stairs is as bloodcurdlingly scary as anything I’ve ever seen on film.

The performances are truly remarkable, from Ms. Weisz as a mother so anguished that she leaves home to pick fruit in California; to Mr. Wahlberg as a father so driven by grief that he loses reason; to Susan Sarandon as a chain-smoking grandmother who runs the vacuum cleaner in her mink coat and copes with a bottle of kitchen sherry. But two electrifying performances, without a hair out of place, dominate this film and leave you drained from excitement: As the tortured victim seeking closure, the fetchingly beautiful young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan (the lying little sister who caused all the trouble in Atonement) makes a memorable Susie; and as the benign monster with yellow hair, spectacles and a voice soft as a kitten’s tongue, living in the sinister house down the block, Stanley Tucci gives one of the most sensational performances of his versatile career. Look for him to make some noise when awards season arrives.

The Lovely Bones is a complex and unusual film, alluring, enthralling and perturbing. Weeks after seeing it, it still gives me nightmares.  rreed@observer.com

  A Nightmare on Their Street