This new, much anticipated film of Peter Jackson’s starts promisingly enough. Take a run-of-the-mill suburban American family circa early 70s – accountant dad (Mark Wahlberg), well-groomed mom (Rachel Weisz), two daughters (Susie – Saoirse Ronan; Lindsey – Rose McIver), neat house in a typical suburban neighbourhood – then drop into this unremarkable mix a dramatic and shocking voiceover revelation from the oldest daughter (taken verbatim from the Alice Sebold novel upon which the film is based):
“My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was 14 years old when I was murdered on December 6th, 1973.”
Blast-off! Cold chills, intrigue…we’re on our way!
There’s no doubting this is a good premise: a dead protagonist narrating the story of her murder and its aftermath. Plenty of dramatic scope here to explore the effects of grief on the family – and on Susie, whose violent and untimely death has left her with a swag of issues post-mortem. She must come to terms with her savage disengagement from her mortal coil, with her sense of bewilderment in the afterlife, with her powerlessness as she watches her family in the throes of mourning while her killer (creepily played by Stanley Tucci) escapes justice. Oh, not to mention witnessing her teen crush, Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie), slowly letting go of her memory and moving on to another girl, classmate Ruth Conners (Carolyn Dando).
Unfortunately, the dramatic potential of the premise is never realised. This is partly due to some dull characterisation – the family’s reactions to Susie’s death are pretty stock-standard (disbelief and denial, suppressed anger that is eventually vented inappropriately and destructively, etc) – and partly due to a restraint that Jackson imposes on his adaptation that, by all accounts, is not true to the spirit of the novel.
In the book, for example, Susie’s mother begins an affair and leaves her family; Jackson has her unaccountably moving out of the family home to go fruit picking, and just as unaccountably moving back some time later, presumably having found some sort of “closure” (God how I detest that bullshit concept, but that’s another story…).
There are other instances, also, of Jackson excising edgy aspects of the book in favour of a PG-rated alternative. In the novel, Susie’s elbow is discovered in the course of the murder investigation, her apparently careless killer having dismembered the body; in Jackson’s version, the manner of her death is only hinted at, and no trace of her remains is found. Further, Sebold’s Susie has sex with her teenage crush, Ray, by spiritually possessing his girlfriend Ruth; Jackson’s Susie possesses Ruth to experience her first kiss as she’d dreamed of it in life – this scene is so saccharine it brings on reflux.
Well, that’s not quite right. The first kiss moment doesn’t bring on reflux – it occurs towards the end of the movie, and you’re gagging on gastric acid by this time (assuming you haven’t resorted to remedial action, such as sticking your fingers down your throat and heaving quietly into your popcorn). And here we come to the real problem, far more serious than Jackson’s characterisation and sanitisation sins: the Disneyesque depiction of Susie’s afterlife.
Did I say Disneyesque? Actually, it’s worse than that – Jackson’s other-side vision as it is projected here is infantile!
Think The Sound Of Music with CGI. Yep, “heaven” is pretty chocolate box mountainsides, right alongside golden wheat fields swaying in gentle zephyrs, flowering meadows, trees with leaves that fly off like swallows, park gazebos and gorgeous coastlines! No CGI wizardry, no dazzling art direction, can compensate for this conglomerate of cliche, this tweeness, this imaginative deficit of Jackson’s.
Mind you, it’s not all blue skies and sunshine; when Susie gets miserable, “heaven” clouds over. There are times, in fact, when the afterlife assumes a bit of a nightmare quality. There’s a seashore sequence in which giant glass bottles containing ships float in on a turbulent sea and smash to smithereens against rocks. This is startling imagery in itself (although the debt to Dali et al is writ large), but in the context of this film, sheer indulgence on Jackson’s part. The scene functions as a portent to Susie that all is not right with her father. She and Daddy had shared some precious father-daughter moments pondering over the ‘why’ behind his ship-in-a-bottle hobby. Cut to the family home, where Daddy, wracked by grief, is smashing his bottle collection. Thing is, since Susie can check out her family at will from the other side anyway, why prefigure the father’s bottle smashing via surreal imagery? Why not just have Susie go straight to Daddy, to the source as it were? Nah, that would be to deny Mr Jackson some CGI fantasy grandstanding he obviously found irresistible.
I could go on being bitchy and picking out logic flaws, instances of indulgence, etc etc, but why bother? There is very little going for this mess of a movie, and I’m not going to waste any more of my time or yours in analysis.
Jackson could have had a good thriller on his hands if only he’d recognised it as such. Instead, he’s tangled himself up in the fantasy elements of the novel, come down with a severe case of big budget fever, gone silly with CGI-enhanced quasi-mystical/spiritual bullshit, and ended up hokey creek without a paddle.
All in all, a wasted opportunity and a big disappointment.
Other reviews by Rolan Stein: