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 past 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. Straight off, she lets us know that "I was 14 when I was murdered on Dec. 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 (Rachel Weisz) flees his obsession even as Susie's sister (Rose McIver) falls under the gaze of the neighbor who killed Susie.
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Jackson's mystical thriller is about closure, but it offers little of that. Although 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. 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 serial-killer turn). We see him prepare. We know what's coming.
What we don't see in advance is how the slaying 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.
The Lovely 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, based on the hit 2002 book by Alice Sebold, with bells and whistles — heavenly effects that scream "overkill."
Zemeckis moved on to make gigantic motion-capture enterprises, techno-films such as The Polar Express. Jackson might 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.