Susan Salmon (as she says “like the fish”) is a typical 14 year old girl living with her parents in 1973 suburban Pennsylvania. She loves to take pictures with her instamatic camera and wants to someday be a wild life photographer. She is the oldest child with 2 younger siblings. As a freshman, she is crushing on a dreamy older student who turns out to her delight to reciprocate. Suddenly this idyllic life comes to a crashing halt when she is murdered by a neighbor.
Susie has just discovered that Ray Singh is equally attracted to her as she is to him. They make a date to meet that weekend. But on the way home from school, cutting across the cornfield, she encounters neighbor George Harvey who asks her to look at this underground clubhouse he has built. He says it’s a secret place he’s created for the neighborhood kids. Susie is curious, yet cautious, but not enough to escape in time. At least she doesn’t realize she didn’t escape until it seems that she is looking at events of her disappearance from the outside. This is like a reversed ghost story, where we are viewing the world from the ghost’s perspective.
After the police find her hat buried in the cornfield, her parents have to face that she is not coming back. Susie’s father, burdened with guilt that he couldn’t save his daughter, is obsessed with finding her killer. Her mom can’t cope with her single-minded husband and runs off to work as a fruit picker in California. Susie watches her neighbor who killed her and her sister who increasingly suspects him.
Susie’s little brother shows his dad that there is this place called the Middle, between life and heaven, and that’s where Susie is stuck. This Middle is this fantasy plain that is beautiful and horrid as a teenagers mind. In this place, she meets Holly who explains its function and that Susie must cut her ties to the physical world and make the next step to heaven. She also meets the other victims of Harvey’s insanity. Susie also wants to go back one more time and experience that last thing she regrets never doing.
There are large differences in the book and the movie such as the adulterous affair between the mother and the detective. Also changed is the span of time that occurs as Susie watches her family ebb, flow, and grow older. The death of the killer was also intensified by Peter Jackson after test audiences wanted the bad guy to suffer more for his crimes. A good portion of the movie is spent as Susie explores the visual desert in the middle world. Gorgeous to look at, but with a 2 ½ hour running time, you begin to wonder why. One thing that is unlike the book is the particular lack of religious overtones when it comes to dealing with the concept of heaven.
Director Peter Jackson effectively channels another teenaged girl like he did in Heavenly Creatures and adds to that beautiful scenarios like in Lord of the Rings. The cast and performances are outstanding and understated. Saoirse Ronan’s (Atonement) Susie Salmon is wondrous, sensitive, and carries this movie with those large blue eyes. Hopefully, she will succeed as Kate Winslet did after Heavenly Creatures. Rose McIver as her sister Lindsey is also strong and vulnerable. Mark Wahlberg (replaced Ryan Gosling who was thought too young for the role as the father) is convincing as the heartbroken father, obsessed with keeping the hope of finding his daughter’s murderer. Stanley Tucci as serial killer George Harvey is creepy, sitting alone in his basement trying to keep his demons at bay. Best of all is Susan Sarandon who plays the boozy grandmother that comes to live with the family and keeps everyone together.
Alice Sebold’s meditative novel is a hard choice to bring to the big screen, especially during the holidays. But no matter what season this movie is released, it will still leave a haunted feeling in your heart.(Review by Reesa Cruz-Hawkins)