By Joseph Viney
There’s nothing that endears a film to its audience like the rape and murder of a child. Arguably it’s the post-modern take on the ‘Boy Meets Girl’ theme. However, outside of American Werewolf In London I have never come across a film trying to make a ‘heart-warming’ story about murder.
Suffice to say this film is one that sets its stall out very early. Those of you who have read the 2002 novel of the same name will be familiar with its premise.
Directed by Peter Jackson, it’s the story of a girl named Susie Salmon who, at the tender age of 14, is raped and murdered. She then narrates the film from ‘heaven’. She has to come to terms with her own death, her murderer being at large and the subsequent trials and tribulations of her family.
Susie’s own journey from a purgatorial state (the ‘unfinished business’ that spirits seem to be so keen on), her attempts to intervene in life back on earth and the eventual acceptance of her own untimely and unjust death are also documented.
The supporting cast back here on Earth try their best, though not good enough, to keep things together. It’s a slow burner this one, and only after many false starts and hoodwinks does the murderer’s security seem to unravel.
The film captures that so-called innocence of American suburbia; children playing outside unsupervised until dark, doors left unlocked, apple pies on windowsills. Inevitably the innocence is a charade, a sham conceived to mask the bad intentions of the minority.
In my world, the difference between a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ film can be judged on the amount of sarcastic remarks I make during the screening; the less remarks the better the film.
As it stands, not one scene could make it without a comment being uttered by myself or my companion deriding the film.
Let’s concentrate on the positive first; the CGI is exemplary. Jackson and his special effects cronies have created a fantastic landscape for Susie’s heaven. The audience is treated to some original and well-crafted shots. We see giant ships in bottles crashing on the rocks, constantly shifting patterns of colour. It’s a kaleidoscopic world and perhaps the best aspect of the entire production. If they ever create an iPhone app for the afterlife, Peter Jackson would be the man to consult.
This presents a caveat for any potential viewers; all of this CGI magic has obviously come at the cost of half-decent dialogue and a coherent adaptation. Some of the oversights, plot developments and acting on offer are worryingly poor and stark.
Mark Wahlberg, looking more and more like Kevin Bacon these days, is notable for his lack of range, expression and presence. For a man who has just lost his eldest daughter you feel a surprising lack of sympathy. Moreover, this film will enable you to gain a sick sense of self-satisfaction when, in one scene, he is severely beaten with a baseball bat. It elicited the biggest cheer of the night.
Rachel Weisz, as Susie’s mother, gives a performance she could do in her sleep. Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon and Stanley Tucci as the suspicious and perverted George Harvey buck the trend of poor acting, giving us some decent performances to mull over.
It’s hard to ascertain just what Jackson was aiming for. The film switches between coming-of-age memoir, to thriller, to a detective story with alarming regularity. This is by no means an easy combination to pull-off and for the film to switch between twee and gruesome without warning leaves no time to gain a clear understanding.
The premise of the source material might well be to blame for this (what works on the page doesn’t always translate well to the screen). On one hand we are taken on a dizzying journey through another dimension where time and space are of no consequence and on the other hand we are frequently dropped back into the mire of reality, where death and sadness reign supreme. It’s a film that toys with the emotions, but instead of invoking sadness, grim acceptance or even sympathy you’re left frustrated and cursing the film’s dizzying narrative and bi-polar mood that permeates throughout.
There is so much potential in this film and herein lies the disappointment. Where we could witness some weighty dialogue, some visceral acting performances and a magnificently spun web it seems as if Wahlberg and Co are merely mannequins in a shop window, filling out space until your eyes settle on the next expensive shiny object.
No matter how much time, money and special effects you throw at a film it will suffer if the building blocks of good scripting, good acting and a clear purpose and direction are missing. Jackson seems spoilt by the excesses of Lord Of The Rings and King Kong and determined to give everything a warm, computerised glow. Given the subject matter it seems ironic that this production would be best suited towards teenage girls.
4 OUT OF 10
Editor’s Note: I would like to take this opportunity to welcome Joseph Viney, our new member of staff here at AMO. Congratulations!
All Images Copyright © 2010 DreamWorks Studios