Roger Ebert really hates The Lovely Bones. Like really hates it. Like the way that Ann Coulter hates Democrats. And Liberals. And Women in general. Just look at his review in the Chicago Sun-Times:
“The Lovely Bones” is a deplorable film with this message: If you’re a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward to. You can get together in heaven with the other teenage victims of the same killer, and gaze down in benevolence upon your family members as they mourn you and realize what a wonderful person you were. Sure, you miss your friends, but your fellow fatalities come dancing to greet you in a meadow of wildflowers, and how cool is that?
The makers of this film seem to have given slight thought to the psychology of teenage girls, less to the possibility that there is no heaven, and none at all to the likelihood that if there is one, it will not resemble a happy gathering of new Facebook friends. In its version of the events, the serial killer can almost be seen as a hero for liberating these girls from the tiresome ordeal of growing up and dispatching them directly to the Elysian Fields. The film’s primary effect was to make me squirmy.
Wow. Listen, Roger. I’m an agnostic, and I know that sort of pushes me to be non-committal about theology, but why does anyone get to decide that anyone’s idea of Heaven is invalid? After all, if we left the discussion of Heaven to logic, David Byrne would be right. Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. That means no His Dark Materials or Angels in America. I don’t want to live in that world sorry.
Not to mention the fact that we never actually see a real “Heaven” in The Lovely Bones. All the digital magic is a manifestation of Susie’s “perfect world,” her perception of the limbo she exists in. (More on manifestations later.)
On the notion of feeling “squirmy,” it’s interesting to compare Ebert’s reaction to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, the film that has polarized critics with its depiction of genital mutilation, negligence resulting in the death of a child, and various other forms of psychological and physical torment. He describes the emotional depth of the film, and the visceralness of his initial reaction to it. He then proceeds to examine Antichrist‘s symbolism in a very perceptive and admirable piece of writing that is probably the fairest bit of coverage von Trier has received. Why give von Trier the benefit of the doubt after he squirmed, but not Jackson?
I would venture to contend that Ebert is grinding an axe against The Lovely Bones because the film suggests that after everything, the point is to heal, that women don’t have to be defined by the pain they have suffered. Ebert says
The murder of a young person is a tragedy, the murderer is a monster, and making the victim a sweet, poetic narrator is creepy. This movie sells the philosophy that even evil things are God’s will, and their victims are happier now. Isn’t it nice to think so. I think it’s best if they don’t happen at all. But if they do, why pretend they don’t hurt? Those girls are dead.
What he fails to notice is that there are very serious scenes of mourning in The Lovely Bones. Susie’s realization of her own death is one of the most painful moments in the whole film, as well as her discovery of the other victims.
The world that Susie exists in for most of the film is idyllic, but a fair critic would ask why this depiction is so unrelenting, as Ebert does in his criticism of Antichrist. Since Ebert is unwilling to try to answer that question, I’ll try.
The way that Susie’s world melds with her family’s suggests that her world is dependant on events in the world of the living. The killer’s victims don’t meet each other until Susie’s sister discovers they’re related. Is it possible that Susie’s world doesn’t actually exist? That the reason her world is idyllic and then terrifying is that her family perceives her state to be where they are emotionally at that moment? That they imagine Susie to be helping them, the way that many people who’ve lost someone say they feel that person still there, even though they can never be physically? Even Susie’s kiss with Ray could be a manifestation of Ray’s own need for closure with Susie in order to open himself up to moving into a new relationship with the girl Susie possesses to kiss him.
Even if you don’t agree with this theory, you can probably admit there’s a possible line of discussion here, a line of discussion that Ebert refuses to address because he wants to dwell on the pain of the (all female) victims accusing Jackson of cheapening this pain while Ebert himself commits an equal sin in reducing these women to the crimes committed against them. As feminists so brilliantly put it: Men rape women. Women don’t “get raped.” Ebert would prefer to focus on how damaged and broken these women are when part of the message of The Lovely Bones is that the most important step is the healing, the baby steps we take towards normalcy after the unthinkable occurs. If I wanted to watch a family fail at coping with their daughter’s death, or watch a rape victim flounder and fall to pieces, I’d watch Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Instead I opted for Ebert’s approach to Antichrist, a film I could barely sit through:
I cannot dismiss this film. It is a real film. It will remain in my mind. Von Trier has reached me and shaken me. It is up to me to decide what that means.