Delicate business is being transacted as Peter Jackson, lord of the Rings fantasy, attunes himself to a family tragedy. The Lovely Bones, adapted from Alice Sebold’s 2002 bestseller, concerns the rape and murder of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a 14-year-old Pennsylvania girl. Her family — dad (Mark Wahlberg), mom (Rachel Weisz), grandma (Susan Sarandon), sister (Rose McIver), brother (Christian Thomas Ashdale) — is devastated. So is Susie, which brings Jackson and his Rings screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens back to fantasy. Caught between death and heaven, Susie watches as her family tries to cope and the killer (an indelibly creepy Stanley Tucci) goes undetected.
Jackson explored similar territory in 1994’s shockingly good Heavenly Creatures. This time he stays within PG-13 parameters. The murder is unseen, the rape barely hinted at. The novel never flinched, the movie does. But Jackson, who builds jolting suspense when Susie’s sister enters the killer’s lair, is drawn to a spiritual dimension. He may oversaturate the Claritin-ad colors in Susie’s in-between place, but he infuses the film with a sense that what lies beyond may have the power to heal. All this is conveyed in the remarkable performance of Ronan, an Oscar nominee for Atonement. She and Tucci — magnificent as a man of uncontrollable impulses — help Jackson cut a path to a humanity that supersedes life and death.