Principal Cast : Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, Zoe Caldwell, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, Hazelle Goodman.
Synopsis: A young boy searches for the lock to fit a key he finds in his dad’s belongings after he was killed in the 9/11 attacks. Along with an elderly man known as “The Renter”, the boy scours New York City for the secret behind the mysterious key, and in doing so, begins to unlock the key to his own happiness.
Won’t somebody please think of the children?
Everyone knows where they were on September 11th, 2001. It’s a date seared into the collective memory of those alive to witness it, as well as a tragedy that will take generations to recover from, both physically and emotionally. We all hear the stories of the heroes, the first responders and the heartbreak of that terrible day, and even if we were not directly affected, we still remain mournful of the tragic waste of life perpetrated by a malignant few. What is less reported in the media – at least here in Australia – is the mounting human toll of the aftermath of the attacks; the inhalation of toxic dust and chemicals by those working at Ground Zero in the recovery efforts has led to a variety of cancers and lung disease, while the emotional scars inflicted on families and friends is almost certain never to fully heal, and let’s not forget the vast swathe cut into the resources of the New York Fire Department and Police Department that had to be covered. Then, there’s the kids – the hidden, unseen menace that emotional scarring leaves with those too young to comprehend the enormity of what happened can fester underneath the surface for a entire lifetime, and it’s precisely this thing that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close attempts to tap into as a story hook. Whether it does so well enough is a matter of opinion, but to me, it’s perhaps less about the story and more about the fact that kids affected by this – or any – tragedy need serious understanding and empathy.
Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a young boy living with the impact of his fathers death in the World Trade Center on September 11. While he’s “been tested for Aspergers”, the “results were inconclusive”, leaving him with an undiagnosed difficulty connecting with new people and a fear of going strange and dangerous places. Oskar’s father, Thomas (Tom Hanks) was a kind and loving father who would give Oskar puzzles to solve – in particular, the whereabouts of New York’s missing 6th Borough. Oskar’s mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock) is afraid that her son, whom she has a strained relationship with since The Worst Day (which is what Oskar calls 9/11) is beginning to withdraw further into himself. One day, Oskar discovers a mysterious key left in a box containing his father’s things in a closet, with the only link to it being the name “Black”. Determined to hunt down the lock which fits the key, and hopefully find a link to his lost father, Oskar begins to search through all the Black’s living in the New York City area. He is joined in his quest by the mysterious man living with his Grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) known only as The Renter (Max von Sydow), who does not speak, but writes things down in order to communicate. Together, they begins to uncover the truth behind the key Oskar has discovered, leading Oskar to free himself from the burden of the guilt he feels from that awful day in 2001.
Regardless of what I say about this film, be it positive or negative, can I implore you to see this film if only for the astonishingly brave and heartbreaking performance by debutant Thomas Horn. Horn, playing Oskar, delivers a performance of such devastating power and intensity, it staggers me that he was overlooked for an Oscar himself. It’s a remarkable moment in cinema, I think – a lot like the moment we all saw the young Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam – and I tend to think the young lad has a great deal of potential just waiting to be unleashed by maturity and experience. As it is, he stands toe-to-toe with Oscar winners like Hanks and Bullock, his co-stars here, and obliterates their work with his innocence and fragility, and his inner strength. So many adjectives could be used to describe Horn’s work, be it “searing” or “intense” or “magnificent”, or some combination of all three: it’s a performance easily amongst the best of the last 18 months, hands down.
The rest of the film, however, I’m a little less effusive about. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has plenty of great things working in its favor, yet for some strange reason I didn’t find it as powerful as I think I probably should have. Taking a subject such as 9/11 and its associated impacts has always been a project fraught with danger: some folks tend to get riled up if they think somebody’s making a quick buck from a national tragedy, or somehow using the tragedy to attach their story in a way deemed inappropriate. Filmmakers have, by and large, approached 9/11 and its ancillary outcomes with a degree of restraint, I’d postulate, and I’d say director Stephen Daldry has remained so with this effort. Extremely Loud isn’t trying to muddle on the effect 9/11 had on New Yorkers or Americans in general, but rather, to those of us who, for the most part, probably aren’t able to verbalize how they feel about it all. The children.
Oskar’s inherent guilt about his fathers death, and the way in which he dealt with not only the grief and anger, but with what transpired on that day – Oskar’s father made several calls from the tower he was trapped in before it collapsed, one to Linda and six to the home answering machine, hoping Oskar would answer – a factor that Oskar has refused to speak of until now. It’s a moving moment when we see Oskar’s faith in the world around him shattered by a day of carnage, and the loving link with his father is forever gone. Oskars grief is the central arc of the story, his guilt and gradual release of it is the primary motivation for a lot of what occurs here. Max von Sydow, as the mysterious Renter, who accompanies Oskar on his trek through the city, delivers a moving performance and he never utters a single word! His connection with Oskar is also a key to this film’s strengths.
Horn and von Sydow aside, the rest of the cast are uniformly okay. Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock offer star service to two roles which are little more than blank canvases with the most simplistic of outlines drawn on them, while Viola Davis (from The Help) is utterly wasted in her role as the go-between for Oskar and eventual pivot character Jeffrey Wright. Wright himself gives a solid performance in a nothing role, perhaps delivering more than required for a character who – prior to the last ten minutes – never existed in our radar at all. Zoe Caldwell is okay as Oskar’s grandmother (who lives in the building across the street, and is in communication with Oskar via a walkie-talkie), and John Goodman effects a nice cameo as Oskar’s building’s doorman. The focus of the film should be, and is, entirely on Oskar, and to a degree his mother and the Renter. Daldry manages to imbue Oskar with a sense of grief so profound it almost overwhelms the viewer at times – his struggle just to walk the streets, let alone meet and interview complete strangers, is profoundly moving, as is his subtle guilt at secreting his fathers voice messages away from his mother – she never hears them within the confines of this film, and this is a plot point I’m happy to reveal because it really annoyed me. Oskar seems selfish, I guess, and although he’s got good reason to be, there’s a certain sense about his life circumstance where you just wanna shake him and send him to a headshrinker.
Daldry captures the warm, earthy tone of New York City, the city I want to live in, perfectly. This isn’t 1940’s Gangster NYC, this is modern, warm summery NYC, and from what I see in this film, it’s a pretty friendly place after all; a boy turning up on any number of strangers’ doorstep would undoubtedly end up in a forensic team combing a crime scene in real life, yet in the movies it seems perfectly reasonable! Go figure. Back to Daldry. His dreamy, near-mythic New York seems crime-free, as well as blissfully lit like a postcard on numerous occasions, and I enjoyed the sheer joy of just watching this thing. It’s a beautifully shot film, thanks to DOP Chris Menges (who also lensed The Reader and Sean Penn’s The Pledge, among others) and it’s clear to me that the whole production has a soft spot for that city. It’s such a lovely looking film.
I’ve read reviews on this film that described it as overly-melancholy, preachy, derivative and insincere, and I have to disagree on the majority of that. Sure, it’s a film which feels constructed to win awards, at least as far as touching on a profound tragedy and putting a kid in the middle of it – that’s always going to garner some kind of award for “brave filmmaking!” – but I think the heart and soul of the film is genuine; a genuine attempt to drag viewers into the mindset that often it’s the children who go unnoticed when tragedy happens. 9/11 was ostensibly an adult event, in that no children were directly affected when the towers came down, yet too often people forget that those adults might have children, and those children miss their daddies and mummies when they’re not there. This film – through the fog of collapsing WTC rubble – attempts to rectify this imbalance. Should it have won the Oscar for Best Film, for which it was among the 9 nominees for 2011? Not at all – there’s too little character development outside of Oskar and The Renter – but it’s a worthy entry into the 9/11 canon of films devoted to tackling what is still a highly divisive and sensitive topic. It’s simply a well made film, although were it not for the amazing central performance of Thomas Horn, would have probably missed the mark.