New thriller engrossing, worthwhile

Posted Jan. 14, 2010, at 5:17 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:56 a.m.

In theaters

THE LOVELY BONES, directed by Peter Jackson, written by Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, 139 minutes, rated PG-13.

The new Peter Jackson movie, “The Lovely Bones,” is a head trip for audiences, a trip to hell for the family featured, and a plunge into purgatory for another.

Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens based their script on Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel, and what they pulled from it is a mostly engrossing film about the Salmons, a middle-class suburban family emotionally destroyed on Dec. 6, 1973, when 14-year-old Susie (a wonderful Saoirse Ronan) is raped. And then murdered. And then broken into parts and cut into pieces. (Everything mentioned in this review is revealed in the trailer — there are no spoilers here.)

Her downfall? Trusting her neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who lures Susie down a well of his own creation. There, the candlelit environment appears to be the perfect childhood hideaway, one complete with sodas, snacks, games and toys. And then, out of nowhere, Susie is instructed to be polite. The atmosphere becomes tense as George starts to come undone. From here, it all goes terribly wrong.

This is a review of the movie, not the book, which is unread by me, but that’s fine since any movie needs to stand on its own. The book is the book. The movie is the movie. Fans of the book might find nuances missing or found. Disappointment likely will linger for some, but perhaps not for others, who might appreciate Jackson’s interpretation. I’m coming to it clean.

The movie is composed of several parts. While Susie is alive, it’s a coming-of-age story about one young girl with a crush on an older boy (Reese Ritchie). When she’s murdered, she goes into the “In-Between,” a ripe, hyper-fantasy world in which colors explode on the screen, leaves fly off trees as if they were birds and mountains move. It’s beautiful, it’s intoxicating, sometimes it’s a bit too much — but really, it’s anything Susie wants it to be.

And yet, as Susie herself notes in the narration that accompanies the film, she knows that “I wasn’t gone — I was alive in my own perfect world. But in my heart, I knew it wasn’t perfect. My murderer still haunted me.” It’s this that brings us to the film’s third and most satisfying part — a good deal of “The Lovely Bones” is a well-conceived thriller, particularly since Susie’s mother and father (Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg), along with their daughter, Lindsey (Rose McIver), and the police detective (Michael Imperioli) working the case, come together to find the killer and bring him down.

Joining them is Susie’s boozy, saucy grandmother (Susan Sarandon, happy to be here, happier to be having a good time with hair large enough to fill an aviary), who initially offers the living Susie a smoky kind of knowing love before events turn dour as attention turns to George. Could it be that he’s the killer? Everyone in the audiences knows he is, but it’s how this family unit dares to find out — a scene involving Lindsey breaking into George’s house is terrific in the suspense it offers — that makes “Bones” a flawed but well-acted and worthwhile thriller.

Grade: B

Also in theaters

A SINGLE MAN, directed by Tom Ford, written by Ford and David Scearce, 99 minutes, rated R.

Tom Ford, former creative director for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, has a new movie out. It’s his first and, in spite of taking place in 1962, it’s timely as hell, particularly in the ongoing debate of equal rights for gay men and women, which have yet to be achieved.

The film is “A Single Man,” it’s based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel, and it stars Colin Firth as George, a gay, middle-aged man who loses his younger, long-time partner, Jim (Matthew Goode), after a horrific car accident.

A professor of humanities, George suddenly finds himself caught in an inhumane world. Since nothing legally binds him to Jim, he is banned from Jim’s funeral when Jim’s family states that they don’t want him there, thank-you very much, so please stay away. When he learns about Jim’s death, it’s only via a brief telephone call. Humane? Hardly — especially since he and Jim were together 16 years.

What that kind of cruelty does to a person — and how the loss of a significant other can profoundly affect a person, whether straight or gay — is what “A Single Man” is about.

In the wake of Jim’s death, George is aloft, rootless, caught in a haze of mourning. The passing of days don’t fulfill that old cliche that states that time heals all wounds — for George, that’s something of a joke. His loneliness and heartbreak thrums onscreen. Grief is etched into his face. In his eyes are a hollowness and a hurt that Firth, in one of his finest performances, captures with haunting ease.

For good reason, there’s a lot of buzz around Firth for his portrayal of George. Essentially, he’s been asked to play a dead man walking, with suicide viewed as potentially the only way out of the pain and the injustice he feels.

And yet through all this, another young man at George’s university tries to edge into George’s life. At another point, a James Dean knockoff also closes in. But George is grieving, and while there is part of him that is curious about this attention, another part of him is repelled by it. His love for Jim is deep. It’s not replaceable. For a reprieve from the ache he feels, he turns to Charley (Julianne Moore), a beautiful drunk who likes her gin almost as much as she likes her eyeliner. There’s love between them, but you sense it’s a different kind of love for Charley than it is for George.

Ford and David Scearce wrote the script, and the film’s presence on the scene punctuates the ongoing issues surrounding the move toward equality for gay couples. The movie doesn’t define the debate so much as it adds to it. Who’s to say who we are to love? Why does the minority lack the equality of the majority? Are George’s emotions second-rate? He was with Jim for 16 years. Does that mean nothing? To the law, it does.

As a director, Ford is very good at holding back and letting his excellent cast do their jobs, which they do well. Occasionally, he lapses into such tricks as sucking the color from the film in an effort to capture George’s increasingly colorless world, but that gimmick doesn’t work against the movie. The leads are too strong, the writing is too solid, and the ethics at hand are too dire to ignore to let a few lapses in judgment get in the way of George’s unfortunately realistic story.

Grade: B+

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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