With an absolute sensitivity to the people and events surrounding 2001’s terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is an emotionally staggering adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same name. Director Stephen Daldry has taken Eric Roth’s (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) screenplay and crafted a film that will have you welling up early and often as it not only manages to be respectful of the events and the millions of lives that were affected, but it’s done in such a way that the tears are earned rather than merely the result of the tragic event at the film’s core.
Set one year after the September 11th attacks, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close follows the story of young Oskar Schell (played to perfection by Thomas Horn) after he lost his father (Tom Hanks) in one of the Towers. Oskar held a close relationship with his father, whom he says “never talked to him like a child” and would often send him on expeditions, the last of which involved the search for clues that would reveal the existence of a “sixth borough”. However, this expedition was cut short on what Oskar calls “The Worst Day” and only now, a year later, has he decided to even dare enter his father’s closet, untouched by his mother (Sandra Bullock). This is where Oskar begins his next expedition.
While searching through his father’s things, Oskar causes a vase to fall to the floor and shatter, revealing a small envelope with the word “Black” written on it and a single key inside. Putting his youthful imagination to work he sees this as another one of his father’s journeys, and with it he now has a new link to his father and a mystery he plans to solve. After all, if there’s a key it must have a lock that it opens.
Oskar plots out his plan, which will take him across all five of New York’s boroughs in search of said lock. Over the course of this journey, family secrets will be revealed, some semblance of catharsis will be found and, as I’m sure you expected based on the subject matter alone, an assault on your emotions will be waged.
Granted, if you view using the September 11th attacks in any way as an emotional cheat, or perhaps disrespectful, you are most likely going to be bothered by the film as a whole. In fact, I don’t know why you’d even go see it. However, if you watch it with the understanding there is no malice intended you’ll realize it’s just as much a journey for Oskar Schell as it is a journey for all of us. It approaches the events of 9/11 and asks the question we’ve all asked at one point — “Why?” It’s the simplest of questions and if anyone has been around a young child for any small measure of time I’m sure you’ve been faced with this one word in a constant barrage. Child or not, if any event in the last ten years deserves such a barrage it’s 9/11. Then again, Oskar isn’t your average child.
Oskar’s a thinker. He’s a reader. He’s an amateur pacifist and inventor. He tells us he was tested for Asperger’s but the “tests weren’t definitive.” He’s a child of a different sort and I instantly gravitated toward him. Like all of us would, he wonders why people he didn’t know would fly a plane into a building and kill his father. It doesn’t make sense. There is no logical answer, but the struggle for understanding continues where no understanding can be found.
Thomas Horn is given a large task in carrying such a weighty story on his shoulders but he does so without a hitch and Stephen Daldry makes him look good every step of the way by not only editing a feature that balances time, emotions and performance with seeming ease, but by also playing to the film’s title in terms of sound and visual intimacy be it a wide shot of the Brooklyn Bridge, soaring overhead views or the slow-motion drip of a leaky faucet. Coupled with an excellent score from Alexandre Desplat and moments of stark imagery caught by the masterful Chris Menges, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tests your emotional stamina as you can only hope to hold on for so long before you break.
I won’t go so far as to say Extremely Loud isn’t manipulative, because it is, just as is any film that centers on any such similar tragedy. The key for Daldry and crew was making sure it wasn’t done in such a way that the audience felt as if their emotions are being toyed with. The audience must be engaged to the point that when the characters react, the audience reacts, and there’s no question this film has achieved that level of intimate connection.
Horn, as I’ve said, was excellent, but Daldry didn’t stop there, surrounding the first-time film actor (and “Kids Week” Jeopardy! champion) with a talented ensemble.
Max von Sydow is outstanding as the mysterious house guest staying with Oskar’s grandmother. Mute as the result of a past trauma, Sydow’s performance is 100% physical from his eyes to the way he carries his aging body. One moment in particular, where Oskar is revealing his plan to the man he knows as “The Renter,” is probably the first moment in the film where audiences will truly find themselves grabbing for a tissue as Oskar screams with frustration and Von Sydow serves as a kindly sounding board, his eyes weakening as he listens to the struggles of a young child who shouldn’t be burdened with such trials. It’s powerful stuff.
Sandra Bullock is also impressive as Oskar’s mother in a performance that hues closer to her work in Crash rather than her Oscar-winning work in The Blind Side and Viola Davis proves she never has a misstep as the first of many New Yorkers Oskar encounters on his expedition. Even Tom Hanks, in a rather limited role, punched me in the gut just by saying, “Let’s go do something.”
The largest issue I had with this film was figuring out how to describe the effect it had on me emotionally. It’s a crushing film that will leave many moviegoers in a heap, but I don’t look at it as an overly sad movie even though the level of sadness on display is undeniable.
In trying to find words to describe this emotional onslaught I think it’s best to say it’s earnest, sincere, impassioned and heartfelt. Yet, emotional descriptors aside, I think it’s best to simply say it’s wonderful and as hard as it may be to swallow the lump it will create in your throat, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a film you’ll walk away from happy you saw it. This is highly effective filmmaking from the top down. It’s one of the year’s best and I loved it.