There is sort of a running joke about what types of movies typically do well during Oscar season. They usually involve the Holocaust (as prophetically joked by Kate Winslett on Ricky Gervais‘s show Extras), contain a serious bio-pic, or provide most notably a picture about someone overcoming a challenge, especially if they have a mental or physical disability. The latter here is the centerpiece of Stephen Daldry‘s (who coincidentally directed Winslett’s winning performance in The Reader) latest feature Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a film that attempts to tackle a sometimes taboo subject in 9/11. Attempts, however, is the right word here, pitting family calamity with a young boy’s frantic search to restore his shattered life. Instead of building an emotionally vivid and translucent image into that fateful day and its lasting effects, it is content to tell us that because it falls into one of the abovementioned categories, it doesn’t have to.
Based off the novel by the same name, the film opens with a funeral, a burial of an empty casket in remembrance of Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), the fallen father of 9-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) who refuses to take part in the service- upset over the worship of a vacant box. This is the early indication that something is not exactly sound with Oskar, who we later find out has indefinitive tests for Asperger’s syndrome, a brightly intelligent boy who also lacks noticeable social skills. His father’s memory becomes an integral part of storytelling as Oskar recalls their time together, a dad treating his son to intricate puzzles and city scavenger hunts, mobilizing Oskar’s distinct gifts. Oskar’s mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) is considerably vacant from her son’s life and feels incrementally less a part until some later plot twists, a mother challenged with raising an emotionally disconnected son.
Then occurs what Oskar calls the “worst day,” September 11th, 2001, shown in a conglomeration of mediated screens and burning recreations. Thomas is trapped inside one of the Twin Towers and frantically leaves six voice-mails on the home phone for Oskar before some disturbing images of his plummet from the building. Oskar refuses to tell his mother about the messages, setting up a small shrine for his dad in his bedroom cupboard. After some exploring in his dad’s closet he finds a blue vase with a key inside, wrapped in a small envelope with the word “black” written on it. This he thinks is a message from his dad, potentially believable, and goes to a locksmith to find out what it fits. It seems capable for a safe deposit box, but the locksmith provides Oskar with the idea that “black” refers to someone’s last name.
Thus enables a five-borough search, 472 names to search for, 472 residences to locate. It’s an astronomical amount, one that gets categorized and labeled with precision by Oskar, who devotes every Saturday to finding what this lonely key could unlock. The first person he meets is a middle aged woman played with profound sincerity by Viola Davis (she has an inescapable ability to provoke an authentic depiction of whichever role she is handed). Oskar is unable to realize her marital turmoil at the present time with her husband (a gravitating Jeffrey Wright). She doesn’t have an answer for him and unwillingly begins to shed some tears, flowing for potentially multiple reasons. He continues to move on to every side street of New York by himself, an almost non-sensical thing to let a child of nine years do. His quirks, like shaking his tambourine to calm his incessant fears, specifically of public transportation, make him a memorable guest to his many big city hosts, all types of people giving hugs, prayers, and hope to this fatherless child.
Daldry provides some disjointed levity to a harrowing tale, but in the process gives us more questions than answers. Do we really believe this kid is unharmed or more importantly, unphased in his unending search? Granted he gets some help from his grandfather (Max von Sydow), first known as “the renter” for an apartment across the street where Oskar’s grandmother lives. He provides a jovial punch to a sometimes dragging pace, and an even more awkward chronological narrative. The director moves back and forth between Oskar’s journey and his memories of his father. This method can sometimes be effective but in this case it serves only as a jumbled collection, not serving a directional poignant moment.
Thomas Horn is strong as a mildly autistic lead, his narration and on-screen exuberance can create cringing interactions with the people he meets, but most notably his mother. Bullock shares little time on screen, which is a shame, but it is an effort to describe Oskar’s outside journey. The problem is its trite effort to create a connection, to bridge the still vibrating currents to the fateful shock of that day. The collections of lives that encounter Oskar and understand his loss have the ability to create a redeeming and spiritual journey. Instead, this film folds as another humdrum retelling of an American tragedy, capable to produce tears, but more conclusively disappointment.
- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Oscar-Trolling 9/11 Kitsch (seattleweekly.com)