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Friends and Fantasy

Adolescent girls, murder, a kingdom of dreams: these are the ties that bind

I'll reveal no more, because to seriously discuss the motivation behind the girls' murder plot would require giving away some of the most audacious images and inspired sequences Jackson has to offer. It's worth noting, however, that Jackson gives everybody, including the viewer, a fair shake. Famed for going beyond excess (his previous movies include the NC-17 Muppet spoof Meet the Feebles, which ended with a puppet equivalent of the Luby's massacre, and Dead Alive, a zombie picture so awash in death and gore and disgusting sight gags that it felt like The Wild Bunch remade by Sam Raimi), Jackson yokes his explosive visual imagination and thrillingly crude energy to the service of a very delicate real-life story. Like a good novelist, he gets inside his subject matter and uses every last drop of his creative power to understand it, and his skills as a storyteller and filmmaker are so startlingly precise that he passes his newfound insight on to us.

It's not at all hard to see why Jackson -- a former cartoonist and photo engraver, and a lifelong devotee of the profoundly inappropriate -- would be drawn to this material. If his idiosyncratic career tells us anything, it's that fearless artistic commitment can turn even the tawdriest, most inherently exploitative concepts -- a porno puppetoon, an undead slapstick bloodbath, a perverse real-life murder tale -- into something inexplicably innocent. It's not really sufficient to say Jackson's brilliance turns trash into art, because that would imply that he saw his material as trash to begin with, and that's certainly not the case. Jackson makes no distinction between high art and low; he's an artistic omnivore who feeds his imagination with anything that strikes his fancy.

In many ways, he's like Juliet and Pauline: he has spectacular visions in his head, visions that haunt him and tickle him and drive him mad with passion, and he wants to be able to see them three-dimensionally, in color, with stereophonic sound. He wants other people to see them, too. But unlike Terry Gilliam, the ex-Monty Pythoner to whom Jackson is sometimes compared, Jackson doesn't have a showman's sensibility. He's never transparent or shallow or clumsy; there's nothing bullying about his work, as there often is with Gilliam's. You never get the impression while watching one of Jackson's movies that he just wants to dazzle you or get a reaction out of you, or that he even particularly cares what you think at all.

His first loyalty is to his muse. He's a pure storyteller who makes debased subject matter pure again -- a real-life illustration of the maxim that art is merely the byproduct of an honest and successful attempt to do something well. He's like a mad hermit filling up notebooks with the most horrific and beautiful drawings you've ever seen. That he would allow you the fleeting chance to peek over his shoulder is a privilege of the highest order.

Heavenly Creatures.
Directed by Peter Jackson. With Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet.
Rated R.
98 minutes.

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