But what is often forgotton is that this movie is not just a 'supernatural drama' as it is ingenuously billed. It is about the violation and disappearance of young girls at the hands of perverts. The catalogue of girls with the year and place of the discovery of their bodies, viz. Pennsylvania 1960, or Delaware 1969, brings home the chilling reminder that our girls are not safe. Or boys for that matter. Winnie Johnson should know. Her 12 year-old son Keith Johnson went missing on 16 June 1964. For more than 40 years she went searching for him on Saddleworth Moor where other bodies were found - but not his. The killers though apprehended would not let her in on that.*
Throughout the movie the dead -- or undead -- Susan provides the commentary on the events leading to her death. She can see reality play out but cannot intervene or prevent things happening - like when her father is mistakenly clobbered as a voyeur while the killer stands by impassively. As a result the narration has a surreal quality, viz. 'I was 12 when I died.'
The echoes of 'Virginia 1906' by Adrienne Rich serve as a palimpset for this movie. I have often wondered what this poem, with its tortured images, is trying to say. Yes, this is a poem about a girl who has survived violation at the hands of a 'white Dixie boy' and has grown up to be a woman. But the trauma won't go away: What if at five years old / she was too old to his fingers, splaying her vulva open / What if forever after, in every record / She wants her name inscribed as innocent.'
As Susan cavorts around in heaven with her new-found friends she perhaps, looking back, would not hesitate to say with Rich, 'I am tired of innocence and its uselessness.' Lured by her killer Susan chases a scrap of paper across the moor, which seems to collude with his intent of evil. Rich provides the epitaph:
There is a porch in Salem, Virginia
That I have never seen, that may no longer stand,
Honeysuckle vines twisting above the talk,
A driveway full of wheeltracks, paths going down
To the orchard, apple and peach,
Divisions so deep a wild child lost her way.
Adrienne Rich, from 'Virginia 1906'
Interestingly, when Susan meets her one and only love interest in the movie amid the lockers, her beau asks her 'How was the moor?' (referring to Othello), and Susan replies 'Beautiful'. That's a strange collocation - unless she was referring to the lonely moors outside her home, where she meets her end.
The film is the most powerful when zooming in on the loving domesticities of family life. 12-year-old Susan Salmon, played by Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, is the anchor for the camera as she goes through her daily school-home routine with her mum, dad, bro and sis.The film is the weakest when it tries to simulate heaven. The movie is important for the sobering realisation that the murderer may be your neighbour next door.
The movie picks up pace when, not satisfied with Susan, the murderer sets his voyeuristic eyes on her sister. Finally it is Susan's sister who in a daring move breaks into the killer's house through a basement window and unearths his diary of diagrams - complete with the details of deaths, victims, and fetishes. The detective and his team prove ineffective to nab the culprit on their own. It takes a victim to know a killer's mind.
The pit which is shown in the opening scenes is like a vast stomach which swallows up our hideousness. Only the lone - 'sometimes wierd' - lady watches the activity at the pit. She seems to know what is it that people want to hide. The safe in which the body lies is heaved down to the pit and thrown down till it sinks amidst the sludge. Is it so easy to conceal a murder or a body?
Produced by Spielberg's Dreamworks studio, with Spielberg as the Executive Producer, the move is a sprawling foray (2: 15 hours) into unchartered territory specially when it concerns the beyond. Browning had famously said: 'Ah, But a man's reach should be beyond his grasp / Or what's a heaven for?' Director Peter Jackson tries to grasp at heaven too, but the ethereal - despite its misty hollows - remains elusive.
The movie is shot in New Zealand (from where Jackson hails), Ireland (from where Ronan hails) and Pennsylvania (where the kids go missing). Yet it remains American in theme and subject.
Pix: Director Peter Jackson with Saoirse Ronan; Source: dipity.com
* 'Winnie Johnson,' Obituary, Economist, 25 August 2012, pg. 74.