About seven years before he entered the pantheon of fantasy with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson made a movie called Heavenly Creatures. Even though it was one of the best films of 1994, it didn't attract a terrific amount of attention. This was no doubt partly because the scenario was based on the bizarre real-life story of two obsessed teenage girls in New Zealand in the 1950s who conspired to murder one of their mothers — but also because of the way Jackson presented the characters of Juliet Hulme (played by Kate Winslet in a striking early role) and Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) and their relationship.
The two otherwise ordinary, middle-class young women seemed to enter into their own private fantasy world when they got together, to the exclusion of everyone else. A decent percentage of all the coming-of-age movies ever made have had a similar setup, but director/cowriter Jackson made us see something wondrous and fascinating in Juliet and Pauline's play-acting. Their fanciful projections ultimately took a deadly turn after their parents objected to the intensity of their friendship, but it was really the girls' misguided adolescent longing, the secret ecstasy of self-discovery, that captivated us, not the brutality.
When Jackson's new film, The Lovely Bones, was first announced, many had high hopes that he and screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, adapting the novel by Alice Sebold, might mine some of that same fresh, chimerical, sparkling teenage desire from its story of a Pennsylvania small-town high-school girl circa 1973 falling prey to a sex-crazed thrill killer. Sad to say, the new movie doesn't come close.
First, a spoiler alert: If you want to come to The Lovely Bones completely cold, stop reading here. The film's advertising and publicity makes no, ahem, bones about showing the main character, teenager Susie Salmon (played by Saoirse Ronan), moving through a fantastical heavenly glade of brilliant colors. In fact, she spends half the movie dead. How she got that way is only one of the movie's threads.
Director Jackson and his screenwriters are clearly just as interested in what happens to Susie on The Other Side — whom she meets, what they accomplish. And, naturally, we have to know what happens with that creepy neighbor, Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci, almost unrecognizable), the one with the odd yellow hair who's always lurking around the neighborhood kids, trying to interest them in his dollhouse and secret hideouts. Jackson makes sure we can spot Mr. Harvey's intentions a mile away. Trouble is, we can predict every other plot turn just as easily. There are shades of The Silence of the Lambs and The Virgin Spring, but precious few of Heavenly Creatures.
The movie opens with the eerie tones of Brian Eno's Music for Airports, and we discover Susie living at home with her mom and dad (Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg), her older sister (Rose McIver), and younger brother (Christian Thomas Ashdale), with live-wire grandma Susan Sarandon always nearby. Young Susie has a crush on a boy at school (Reece Ritchie), but of course it comes to naught. We don't learn much more about Susie while she's alive. There's a scene where the Salmon kids help Dad dump some trash into a giant sinkhole on a nearby farm, and it worries us — surely we'll see that sinkhole again.
The afterlife stuff is pretty awful. While Susie and her ghostly new friend Holly (Nikki SooHoo) are traversing the fields and mountains of paradise (or is it purgatory?), they form a young victims' detective bureau and spend a good chunk of eternity directing traffic back in Norristown, where Susie's folks grieve and sister Lindsey does a Clarice Starling number on Mr. Harvey. The idea seems to be that murder victims could take an active role in apprehending their killers from beyond the grave.
Be that as it may, we really don't want to wander the celestial landscape with Susie forever. It is a maudlin place where everyone resembles relieved sufferers from a pharmaceutical commercial. Ms. Ronan, the guilty teen from Atonement, offers a variation in the same key as poor Susie. Most of the cast follows along well-worn pathetic guidelines, with the exception of Sarandon's Grandma Lynn, McIver's headstrong Lindsey, and local young woman Ruth Connors (Carolyn Dando), who sees Susie's spirit whiz by late one night. There's a grit, a spark of hopeful determination, in the faces of Lindsey and Ruth that eludes everyone else in Jackson's disappointing outing.
Michael Haneke, nobody's favorite creator of European art films, has made a specialty of confounding the expectations of his audience in such movies as The Piano Teacher, Caché, and the 2007 remake of his own Funny Games, which featured the rare sight of Tim Roth as the victim (of home invader Michael Pitt) instead of the predator. In The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band: Eine deutscher Kindergeschichte), the game is to differentiate the predators from the victims.
It's the eve of World War I in the Northern German farming village of Eichwald, a seemingly drowsy hamlet that is in fact a seething cauldron of hatred and violence. Strange things begin to take place: Someone maliciously trips the local doctor's horse, seriously injuring the doctor. An unknown assailant burns down the baron's barn, and a mysterious man takes a scythe to the baroness' cabbage patch. Later the baron's young son, Sigi, gets kidnapped. A farmer is found hanging in his barn. A young "retard" is discovered mutilated. And so on.
Could all this have anything to do with the society's strict hierarchy: the baron and his family on top; the bourgeoisie, including the conscientious town school teacher (Christian Friedel) underneath that; and the farmers at the bottom — and the men over the women, as well? The village children, in particular, are shown to be the recipients of discipline that would make 21st-century Americans cringe. Are the kids taking revenge? And by the way, aren't those children the ones who will be of voting age when the Nazis take power in Germany in 1933? Hmm.
Christian Berger's black-and-white cinematography is as gorgeously rich as writer-director Haneke's screenplay is forbiddingly austere. The well-scrubbed, suitably chastised characters all seem to have stepped directly from photographer August Sander's masterful series of portraits of ordinary Germans of the early 20th century. But Haneke is not about drawing easy parallels. We're going to have to work to figure out the mysteries. And that work abruptly ends the moment we walk out of the theater.