(Paramount/DreamWorks) Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Saoirse Roman, Michael Imperioli, Rose McIver, Amanda Michalka, Reese Ritchie, Jake Abel, Nikki SooHoo, Carolyn Dando. Directed by Peter Jackson
Nobody really knows what happens after we die. What we do know is that the living must make peace with the dead; those of us who lose a loved one must learn to let go. What if the dead have to do the same for the living they leave behind?
Susie Salmon (Roman) has a lovely existence. 14 years old, beautiful, vibrant and surrounded by a family that adores her, she has all the self-doubts that a 14 year old girl has, and that terrible, crushing feeling that the handsome boy she has her eye on – Ray Singh (Ritchie) – doesn’t know she’s alive. She yearns for the first kiss, the one her Grandma Lynn (Sarandon) has said is special, and maybe the best kiss she’ll ever have. She has been given a camera for her birthday and in the way of 14 year olds, is obsessively taking pictures of everything.
That all comes to an end on December 6th, 1973 when she is lured by a neighbor she barely knows by the name of George Harvey (Tucci) into an underground clubhouse and chopped into pieces (we don’t actually see the deed; we only surmise the means of her demise through what occurs later).
For her parents, Jack (Wahlberg) and Abigail (Weisz), they only know she hasn’t come home. After a few days, the police led by sympathetic Detective Len Fenerman (Imperioli) discover the remains of the clubhouse, which Harvey has filled in. They also find a sizable amount of blood but no body. While it isn’t certain, it seems unlikely that their little girl is coming home.
As for Susie, she has ascended into a bright place of fields and forest, seashore and sunshine, moonlight and magic. It is, as she explains, her perfect world; not heaven exactly – as she is told by Holly (SooHoo), a young Asian girl who acts as a kind of a guide to Susie, meant to lead her from this place that Susie calls the “in-between” to heaven, which is apparently a tree. At least, that’s what we see; it’s possible Susie sees more.
However, she can’t bring herself to move forward into heaven. She is haunted by her murderer, who has gone undetected and is at large. She is suffused with a sense of outrage and just plain rage, wanting the man who robbed her of her life to pay with his own for the deed. From where she is, she cannot affect the living although she is detected from time to time by her little brother, a somewhat clairvoyant girl named Ruth (Dando) and her grieving father.
She watches the grief of her parents begin to tear them apart, despite the best efforts of her Grandma Lynn, who has come to stay and help in her own besotted way. She sees her father trying to piece together the identity of her killer. She sees her mother unable to cope with the enormous loss. She sees her little sister Lindsey (MacIver) growing into the role she once held in her family. And she sees her killer, preparing to take another victim.
This is based on a best-selling novel by Alice Sebold, one which I admit I haven’t read yet (although I understand it is wonderfully written) so I cannot compare this movie accurately its source. I can only review it on its own merits, which are considerable. This is a dark tale, one in which happy endings are not a guarantee. This is a world where bad things happen to good people, and where bad people act badly with impunity.
And yet I found myself drawn into this movie. We are told early on who the killer is, but the movie isn’t about the capture of the killer. This isn’t George Harvey’s story, its Susie Salmon’s and in order for the movie to work, the actress who plays her has to be special and Roman is indeed that. An Oscar nominee for her performance in Atonement (which came after she was cast for this), she is innocent and beautiful and poetic all at once. Her sadness is palpable; she misses her family. Her rage is undeniable; her future was stolen from her. Her innocence is a joy to behold; everyone should have a daughter like her.
Wahlberg also gives a powerful performance as her dad. The bond between her and Susie has to be strong, and Wahlberg conveys it well. Even though he is grieving, the movie isn’t about his grief per se; it’s about moving on and his grief becomes a peripheral element of the movie, but it is central at certain points as well.
The movie’s best performance, however, belongs to Tucci. He will make your skin crawl in a way no actor has since perhaps Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. You, like Susie, want to see him struck down and caused pain. You don’t merely want to be brought to justice, you want him punished and punished hard. This is Oscar-caliber work and a good reason to see the movie all by itself. Sarandon does a fine job in a role which is largely comic relief; I would have liked to see it developed a bit more but in a two hour plus movie, that may not have been possible.
Jackson’s vision of the afterlife is very lyrical in places, with dancing leaves, flocks of colored birds and roses that bloom in the ice. Some of the effects are downright breathtaking. However, it also must be said that his depiction of the darker aspects of the movie are as well executed. The scenes of Susie with her eventual murderer in the place of her death are gut-twisting; you may find yourself turning away from the screen, unwilling to watch this bright life snuffed (which thankfully we’re not shown).
I must also give a shout out to Brian Eno, the movie’s composer. He is best-known these days as the producer of U2 and other great artists, but he has a long and distinguished career first as a member of Roxy Music and later as an originator of ambient music in his own solo works. This is perhaps the best score I’ve heard in a movie this year and it has been sadly ignored in most of the reviews I’ve seen, as well as in the awards that have been handed out. To my mind, no score has augmented a film as well as Eno’s. Jackson also did an amazing job of picking out period songs to supplement the score.
This isn’t an easy movie to watch, and it isn’t always a nice one. This is a movie not about life and death but about moving on. The events that surround it are tragic and sad, but there are also moments of joy to behold. This hasn’t gotten the kind of reviews I expected it to get and having seen it now, I can understand some of the criticism even if I don’t agree with all of it. At the end of the day, I can say this is a movie worth seeing because of the performances more than because of the subject matter, because of the style more than the substance. Still, I look forward to seeing some of the extras on the Blu-Ray because I’d certainly like to hear how the process worked in making this ultimately fascinating film.
REASONS TO GO: Tucci gives a creepy and stomach-turning performance as the serial killer and pedophile. Roman gives a remarkable performance of her own. Jackson’s images of the “in-between” are breathtaking. Brian Eno’s score, as well as the use of period music, is inspiring.
REASONS TO STAY: The murder of Susie Salmon, while never directly witnessed, is nonetheless a very difficult and wrenching sequence.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some very disturbing imagery and subject matter, some of which may be too much for the impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Peter Jackson makes a cameo as a customer in a camera store, looking through the lens of a Super 8 movie camera.
HOME OR THEATER: This is very much a big screen experience.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: 10 Items or Less