Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is an ordinary 14-year old girl. She has a younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver), an even younger brother Buckley (Christian Ashdale), a perfectionist father obsessed with building model ships in bottles (Mark Wahlberg), a stressed out mother (Rachel Weiz) who knits terrible headwear, an alcoholic grandmother (Susan Sarandon) and is developing her first crush on fellow schoolmate Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie). One day, however, Susia doesn’t make it all the way home from school. Whilst crossing a field near her family home she is lured into an underground bunker by her creepy neighbour George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), Harvey kills Susie, and the ramifications of this will throw her family into turmoil.
I remember reading Alice Sebold’s novel a few years ago, just before the film came out when it was one of those everybody-is-reading-it fads, and I liked it but, as with Emma Donoghue’s Room earlier this year, I didn’t then feel the need to rush out and see the film, regardless of it being directed by Peter Jackson, a director I ordinarily greatly approve of (up until the last Hobbit film). Now it seems I made the correct decision.
This is very much a film of two halves, heavily interwoven with one another. After Susie’s death, which takes place very early on, the narrative splits and focusses on either her family trying to cope with the tragedy and get to the bottom of the mystery, and Susie herself, passed on to a place in between the realm of the living and whatever may lie beyond. This “In-Between” world is clearly what drew Jackson to the adaptation, invoking many comparisons to similar aspects of Heavenly Creatures, especially once Susie befriends another girl in the same world. One thing I expected from this was that the In-Between world would look stunning, but if anything it was a little disappointing. The abundance of CGI hasn’t aged well, and gave a distinct Star Wars prequels vibe, with everything being very obviously fake, and some scenes looked absolutely terrible, with the boats crashing onto shore being a particular example. And stylistically the colour palette was just too vibrant. I appreciate that this is realm is from a child’s perspective, and Susie isn’t too far out of the green grass/square house/bright blue sky age of artistry, but often it felt too juvenile even for her.
The Susie-in-Purgatory storyline is frustrating, in that it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. For the most part we’re just watching her watching other people, adding a buffer layer between us and what is actually going on back in the real world. It’s necessary in that it’s the unique selling point of the story, distinguishing it from other murder-mystery-thrillers, but it’s a unique quality I could do without. Ronan is decent though, so at least it means we get more of her performance, I just find that whole side of the film detracts from the other. Then again, that could be my opinion because of how great the other half of the story is.
I love almost everything about the real world ramifications of Susie’s murder. The effect it has on the different family members – her Dad obsesses over finding the killer, her mother breaks down and can’t cope any more, requiring Susie’s grandmother to come and help, her sister knuckles down and excels at school whilst also becoming increasingly curious of the mysterious guy up the street, Ray grows closer to school outcast Ruth Connors (Carolyn Dando) who was “touched” by Susie during her ordeal, and understandably George Harvey tries to cover up his involvement with Susie’s disappearance. Whilst I think Wahlberg has been mis-cast as an everyman – this is a role for the likes of Matt Damon or Martin Freeman, not Wahlberg – elsewhere the cast is terrific. Sarandon was made for the role of the incompetent alcoholic thrown into caring for her grandchildren, and she provides some fun comedic moments, but Tucci steals the show.
He dances the line of the unassuming neighbour you wouldn’t give a second thought and a full-on terrifying nut-job, and he thoroughly deserved his Best Supporting Actor nomination, although Christoph Waltz also deserved to win it for Inglourious Basterds. The scene in which Harvey lures Susie into his freshly-built underground hideout is thoroughly disconcerting, especially after Susie realises the true peril she is in. His scenes also have the most interesting cinematography. Harvey’s business involved making dollhouses and their furniture from scratch, and many shots of him play with perspective by shooting from inside the dollhouse he is working on, making him look like a giant monster. Alas, these scenes are performances make the film at times good, but never fully worth your time.
Choose Life 6/10