I know that Alice Sebold’s book is revered for some reason or another, but the film sure didn’t give any of the reasons away as to why. That’s not to say that director and co-screenwriter Peter Jackson has made a bad adaptation, far from it, but it’s not remotely clear what the film is supposed to be about. Is it a ‘Ghost’-style, beyond-the-grave murder mystery? Is it a teen romance? A story of a serial killer? It never settles on anything particularly, and Jackson’s focus never stays still long enough to get an emotional grip on proceedings. Teenager Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is murdered by serial killer neighbour Stanley Tucci in the early 70s, and narrates the film from the afterlife. We see her family life, we see her first love, ambitions and insecurities, just as she’s about to start really growing up. After her death we see her stuck in the ‘In-Between’, a half-way house between life and the afterlife, seemingly trapped by her parents’ (Mark Wahlberg & Rachel Weisz) inability to let her go. Will Tucci get away with it?
Well yes, and it’s a highly unsatisfying end to a film which claims to aspire to much more. There are other unsatisfying aspects to the film however, from Wahlberg’s whiny, insubstantial performance, to his and Rachel Weisz’s frustratingly unmoving grief, through to the non-story about the police (were they really that incompetent in the seventies?); it all may be entertainingly knitted together, but it’s emotionally unengaging. It leaves Ronan standing almost alone, excelling as Susie Salmon, as does Tucci as her killer, and the absence of a clearer focus on their relationship before and after her murder, and the lack of emotional resonance of her life being cut short are genuinely missed opportunities. But Jackson doesn’t spend long enough on any character’s plight for us to engage with it in any depth. And what was Susan Sarandon doing as the comedically drunk grandmother?
Susie doesn’t end up leading her parents to Tucci – Wahlberg figures it out on his own, and even the moment where her disembodied spirit could intervene to stop Tucci from getting away with his crime is spoiled by a ridiculously contrived (and inappropriate) sequence with Ronan and her still-living true love. What was the point of it all? What was the point of framing the real world stories with Susie’s adventures in the afterlife? It may have looked impressive, but was overlong and overindulgent, and I never figured it out.