Although many will regard Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as a so-called “911” movie, I think that definition misleads the audience into expecting something completely different than what this film sets out to be. Rather than attempting the monumental task of representing the grand scope of the September 11th tragedy through one perspective, the story here is presented as a personal tale of loss that was a result of that day in 2001. This exceptionally well-crafted production actually uses the 911 event as a backdrop of senseless sudden loss in order to explore the impact of one parent’s effect upon a child even after that parent is gone, and the difficult transition that child must make to a life void of that parent’s guidance.
In the film we learn early on that nine-year old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is an unusual child. He seems to be exceptionally intelligent and well educated for his age. However, this point is a bit exaggerated by acclaimed director, Stephen Daldry (the only director to receive Oscar-nominations for his first three movies Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader). Daldry has the inexperienced, but able young actor go a bit overboard in his attempt to demonstrate that Oskar is eccentric. In fact, his quirky charm sometimes comes off a bit too odd; causing one to suspect Oskar may have some form of Asperger’s Syndrome. This could be an interesting aspect to the character, but it feels that this quality is relied upon to excuse moments that would have been handled with greater agility by a more experienced actor (the scene that involves an outburst at a locksmith company was most annoying). Surely, this is a demanding role, one that is a lot to handle even for the seasoned child actor. Unfortunately, the weight of such a responsibility is an expectation that is seldom fulfilled, and in the case of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the results fall short.
And casting Hanks to fill the role of an incredibly attentive parent almost works against itself. His persona precedes itself, and once again presumed personality is relied upon to fill in the gaps that might have been left void by a lesser-known actor. Similarly, an underutilized Sandra Bullock brings with her personal presence a whole lot of understanding of the mom without that character actually having to do very much. Sometimes specialty casting works very well, but in this case I felt cheated out of getting to know the mom for her own merits. There is a watershed of information near the end of the film, but I would have liked to know her a lot earlier if I was going to empathize with her motivations (or seeming lack of) when Oskar first makes some important decisions.
The beginning of the film is well told in flashback where we are shown that Oskar and his father regularly engaged in complex and challenging games. Some were purely mental, while others were designed as outdoors adventures meant to engage Oskar with the outside world (a skill that does not come easily to the socially awkward child). These scenes are full of fun as we watch a particularly attentive father (an almost too endearing Tom Hanks) interacting on all cylinders with his child. Together the two apply Oskar’s intense dedication to creative and structured treasure hunts.
However, life as Oskar knew it came to an abrupt end as a result of his father’s untimely death at The World Trade Center. And now, as the initial effects of the tragedy are still fresh, the boy comes across a key he believes his father meant for him, and him alone to find in order to fulfill one last elaborate adventure, one that compels him to search for the lock that matches the mysterious key. This is when the meat of the story takes shape and all the endearingly charming, feel-good moments championed in reviews takes place. We see just how imaginative Oskar can be when he deduces the scrawling of the name “Black” to mean the name of the possessor of the lock. So, Oskar (unable to relate to his mother the way he did with his dad) secretly sets out to systematically meet everyone in NYC named Black in order to fulfill the quest.
Now, as someone who has lived in NYC the idea of a child going door to door in Manhattan is outrageously scary, and Bullock’s character initially appears to be a little too disinterested in her young son’s unusual comings and goings (however this is explained satisfactorily in the end). But as an adult remembering the thrill of childhood escapades, the prospect is immensely appealing. Although I was distracted by the unrealistic act of everyone accepting this determined child into their homes, it is a lot of fun watching Oskar interact with the many diverse people he would otherwise never have known, even if many of these encounters are portrayed with exaggerated sentiment by bit players who are obviously inexperienced actors.
Of course, the amateur performances would not be as noticeable if they did not bear such stark contrast to the quality of the more substantial roles. Besides the work of Hanks and Bullock, the incomparable Max von Sydow (The Exorcist, Hannah and Her Sisters) provides an Academy Award worthy performance as an elderly mute recluse who aids Oskar along his journey. It is a marvelously nuanced performance created by an experienced actor who says far more with the glance of his eyes than any words could ever hope to convey. The ever-reliable John Goodman also makes an appearance in a throwaway role as Oskar’s doorman, and Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright have small, but pivotal roles as two of the people Oskar meets.
Towards the end of the film many secrets are explained and it becomes clear that as he searched for answers Oskar was himself a catalyst for healing. For all the people he encountered on his journey he provided an opportunity for them to contribute to the rebuilding of a damaged city. This is why it was necessary to include the events of 911 as a backdrop. It provided a realistic situation for the citizens of a metropolis to not only be open to the idea, but eager to help a stranger, especially one so directly affected by the tragedy.
There are plenty of aspects to like about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but with its few shortcomings I wouldn’t set your expectations too high or you’re bound to be disappointed. And although the message of this film is a universal one suitable for all ages, and a boy plays the central character this is not a children’s film by any stretch of the imagination (not that the filmmakers intended it to be). So, please, understand the film is rated PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language, and use caution when deciding who in your family should join you for a trip to the movies. Under the right circumstances and with the right audience you’ll be sure to enjoy yourself.