Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (United States, 2011)December 22, 2011
For one reason or another, there have been few quality movies made about 9/11. Maybe it's because the event is too recent and the wound too fresh. Or perhaps it's because filmmakers are keenly aware that a misstep could lead to charges of exploitation, as with the 2010 misfire, Remember Me. With Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, director Stephen Daldry has fashioned an emotionally powerful cinematic testimony about that horrific late summer day.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is not about 9/11 in a global sense. It does not care about terrorists or terrorism. It is unconcerned about the reactions of the country and the world. Instead, it's a very simple, human story about a boy who loses his father. It illustrates the pain that is often forgotten in 9/11 discussions, when righteous indignation detracts from the wrenching pang experienced by families with empty seats at holiday dinner tables. Yet, even though 9/11 is a critical element of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the movie is not about 9/11. In fact, the principal storyline takes place a year beyond that fateful date. Yes, this is a story about loss and coping with that loss, but it is even more a tale of fathers and sons, sons and fathers, the bonds that exist between them, and the bonds they wished existed between them.
The film's material could easily fall into the toxic category of being too raw to watch. However, because of the way in which the narrative is structured (with 9/11 being depicted only in flashbacks) and because of the wry, understated ways in which Daldry lightens the tone (occasional, heartfelt moments of humor, instances of affection), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close becomes digestible. It may wring tears from your eyes, but you will not leave the theater feeling hollow or beaten-down. There is catharsis in this movie, perhaps as much for some members of the audience as for the characters on screen.
Cynics may glance at the cast list and, upon seeing the high-profile names of Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, dismiss the film as just another sentimental, manipulative tear-jerker aiming for Oscar gold. Such a preemptive strike does a disservice to the production. Though Hanks and Bullock are the biggest names in the cast, they fill secondary roles. In fact, Hanks is dead by the time the movie starts and we see him only when gazing back through the mists of time. Max von Sydow, another respected actor in a supporting part, has more screen time than either of them. The film belongs to young Thomas Horn, a former Jeopardy champion who is making his feature debut. His Oskar Schell is in the crosshairs of nearly every scene in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and he is equal to the enormous task set before him.
Oskar is not a normal nine year-old. He's articulate and intelligent beyond his years. But he's also painfully awkward in social situations, has difficulty controlling his emotions, and is frightened by just about everything. His father, Thomas (Hanks), believed Oskar to be afflicted with Aspberger's, but tests were inconclusive. Nevertheless, this protagonist is unlike a typical movie child. He's not so cute you want to pinch his cheek nor so obnoxious that you want to hit him. He's a fully-rounded character and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close presents the world of New York City, circa 2001-2002, through his eyes.
There is nothing dysfunctional about the Schell family. Thomas is a successful jeweler who loves his son and spends as much time as possible with him. Thomas adores his wife (Bullock) and she is devoted to her husband and son. Thomas' elderly mother (Zoe Caldwell) lives in the building next door to Oskar's and the boy speaks with his grandmother by walkie-talkie. Then 9/11 occurs and Oskar's father, who is on the 105th floor of the North Tower, does not come home from his meeting, although he leaves six answering machine messages between the fateful times of 8:56 and 10:27.
One year later, while rummaging in Thomas' closet, Oskar discovers a key hidden in a vase. He believes that by embarking upon a quest to discover the lock that matches the key, he will learn something important and keep a part of his father with him. His travels take him to all five Burroughs of New York City. He is accompanied only by his grandmother's lodger (von Sydow), an old man who has lost the ability to speak. Despite the seeming impossibility of Oskar's task, he attacks it with relish, using lessons taught by his father to carry him through some of the difficult aspects.
9/11 is presented respectfully, without exploitative motives. The event and the tragedy it meant (and continues to mean) is handled carefully. Daldry does not dwell on images of the wounded buildings, relying instead on briefly glimpsed news footage. No moment of the Towers' destruction has been recreated for the movie. While it's questionable whether a relative of a 9/11 victim will be able to sit through the film, there is nothing in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that taints the memory of those who perished on that day.
The narrative is not unlike that of a road film, in that the destination is less important than the journey. Ultimately, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close does not demand a clean resolution to Oskar's task. In undertaking it, he learns things about himself, his father, and his fellow citizens. He is met with kindness, pity, rudeness, and indifference. He sees his mother and the lodger in different ways. And he learns to confront his own fears, which are numerous, and overcome them in ways that would make his father proud.
Daldry is not daunted by attacking difficult material. The Reader proved there are few subject matters he considers to be off limits, but this is a closer cousin to Billy Elliot. And, although Daldry has recruited two of Hollywood's most prestigious actors to this project in Hanks and Bullock, neither comes attached as a star. With egos submerged, they have become the characters and do not interfere with our ability to complete the journey into Oskar's world. They are not Hanks and Bullock; they are Dad and Mom.
The combination of Daldry's direction, the screenwriting of Eric Roth and the acting of Horn provides us with a rare portal of how children view reality, which is decidedly different from the normal adult perspective. We experience all the tragedy, wonder, and fear as Oskar feels them. Things that an adult might brush aside (such as taking the subway) become barriers for him, but he is able to approach other things (like knocking on a door and opening a conversation with a complete stranger) with equanimity.
Most motion pictures attempt to manipulate emotion, and that's a valid stylistic decision by the director. Some films underplay this hand and come across as cold and distant. Others go too far, resulting in a cloying, melodramatic mess. When a viewer notices he is being manipulated, the director has gone too far. With Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Daldry comes close to the "sweet spot" - he touches the heart without revolting the mind. The difficulty of achieving this should not be underestimated, and the filmmakers' success results in a movie that is as powerful as it is delicate. The more one brings to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the more he is likely to take away.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (United States, 2011)
Cast: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Caldwell
Screenplay: Eric Roth, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer
Cinematography: Chris Menges
Music: Alexandre Desplat
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers