Before Peter Jackson went epic with The Lord of the Rings, he directed the fantastic Heavenly Creatures, a twisted and lovely drama with a flawless blend of visual effects.

Before Peter Jackson went epic with The Lord of the Rings, he directed the fantastic Heavenly Creatures, a twisted and lovely drama with a flawless blend of visual effects.

While The Lovely Bones doesn't live up to either of those previous works, it draws on his experiences from both: from Rings, his adaptation of a revered written source, from Creatures, his ability to weave elements of fantasy into a real-world story.

Based on the 2002 bestseller by Alice Sebold, Bones is narrated by 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), who informs us matter-of-factly in the film's opening of her brutal murder. She looks down from a blissful afterlife but struggles with the knowledge of her grieving parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) and unsolved slaying.

Bones' pedigree and year-end release date set up expectations for an awards contender and, thus, some disappointment. The subject matter makes it a tough sell for mainstream audiences, and its over-earnestness makes it a tough sell for the art-house crowd.

Jackson is still damn good at telling a ghost story and downright masterful at manipulating an audience, even if he's occasionally guilty of overreaching. He tackles a complex story, though he's had to file down some of the sharp edges.

But Bones is made worthwhile by the performances of Ronan - who infuses both innocence and wisdom in Susie without being precocious - and Stanley Tucci, who steals the film as a spine-chilling child killer next door.