Grief is a process. Psychology books and personal experience will tell you that. Perhaps not all of us experience someone being ripped from our lives in an instant, but the process is always the same. Why then, is it so challenging to watch 9-year-old Oskar (Thomas Horn), whose father (Tom Hanks) dies in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, endure this all-too-familiar pain? It should be moving to see a young albeit peculiar child come to terms with this in his own way.
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” attempts to play powerful cinematic music with extremely sensitive strings. The story is steeped in trauma and mourning, so the obvious danger would likely be creating a film that’s too heavy or suffocating, but this story has moments of quirk, sincerity and even adventure. The trouble is that not until the end does the film ever let go of what Oskar calls “the Worst Day”—his code for 9/11. It haunts the entire movie, and while that can certainly be justified, it throws us out of sync with the characters, who all seem to experience the fiercest of emotions when we aren’t ready for them.
The biggest problem is Oskar. It has nothing to do with the young Horn’s performance, but everything to do with how Oscar winner Eric Roth was forced to adapt him for the screen. I have not read Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, but my guess is given the abundant use of narration in the movie, Oskar tells the story in the first person. Considering we are forced to follow and identify with a 9-year-old with Asperger’s and probably some form of autism, understanding and relating to this character is crucial, yet maddeningly difficult.
Understandably through no fault of his own, Oskar treats his mother (Sandra Bullock) poorly, swears at his apartment building doorman (John Goodman), throws temper tantrums, lies and despite his curiosity and adventurous spirit, uses deduction in place of logic. He’s a nightmare of a main character, and his constant relapses as the film flashes back to 9/11 butt in every time you start to warm up to him.
Director Stephen Daldry has experience working with troubled boys (“Billy Elliot”), but he doesn’t appear to do enough to help us sympathize, which could be the result of roadblocks in the script. Given that Oskar holds secrets even from the audience until close to the end, most of which deal with revisiting 9/11, it’s hard to feel bad for him. He’s just a strange kid afraid to move on, which isn’t exactly revelatory.
Oskar’s pursuit of finding what a mysterious key found in his father’s closet belongs to is supposed to be the start of an adventure, but one that never really blossoms. The closest it ever gets is the 30 minutes in which Oskar befriends The Renter (Max von Sydow), an old man choosing to be mute that lives with Oskar’s grandmother in a nearby building. He accompanies Oskar on his journey and challenges him to overcome his fears, and makes for an interesting compliment to the ever-gabbing child. If you had to nominate “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” for an Academy Award, it would be for von Sydow, so in that sense perhaps he deserves recognition.
All the colorful characters you would expect Oskar to meet as he tries to find every single person with the last name Black living in New York City exist in voice-over snippets. From a quick outside glance, the story would likely be about a child going on an adventure expecting to find a meaningful answer and learning that the journey was the entire point, but it somehow ends up way more convoluted.
“Extremely Loud’s” Best Picture nomination is extremely unwarranted. Despite the talent on and behind the camera, the product as a whole is messy and most importantly, unable to connect emotionally with its audience. Certainly some people will connect with a moment or two and really appreciate the film’s emotional fearlessness, but anyone versed in Oscar-caliber drama knows this doesn’t fit the bill despite all the venerated talent that put this movie on Oscar radars everywhere when it first came together.
Maybe it’s that abundant talent that makes the film’s shortcomings all the more difficult to bear, but the more you think about it, the more you realize this kind of a perspective on September 11 — from the eyes of such a challenging protagonist — probably doomed it from the start. The craftsmanship, the acting and some of the raw moments in the story make the film nothing to scoff at, but the impact of it all, which is the heart of this kind of drama, doesn’t come across as it should.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Written by Eric Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer (novel)
Starring: Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Max von Sydow