There is nothing cuddly about Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), the 9-year-old narrator of Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. He’s fretful, voluble, socially awkward—obviously brilliant, but not entirely pleasant company. He confounds his mother (Sandra Bullock) and doesn’t seem to have any peer friends. The only person he can really relate to is his father (Tom Hanks), who sends Oskar off on elaborate reconnaissance missions, all in a sly attempt to get the boy to interact with the world.
The movie is about one last mission his father sends Oskar on—how even in death, the father is still showing his son how to live.
Yes, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is that film—the 9/11 one—and it attempts to negotiate the massive scope of our national tragedy with the tiny world of a socially isolated little boy. A few critics have lambasted the film for being emotionally manipulative—and it certainly is heavy handed at times (this is the same Stephen Daldry who gave us the operatically depressing The Hours, after all).
But when an answering machine containing urgent messages from the World Trade Center left by Oskar’s father—delivered with escalating panic as he begins to realize the grimness of his own fate—can be more disturbing than anything you’ll see in a horror film, I’d say Daldry has tapped into our collective dread from that horrible day.
It’s while Oskar is hiding the answering machine—ostensibly from his mother (Sandra Bullock), but really from himself—that he stumbles across a blue vase that belonged to his dad, as well as a key. The only clue is the name “Black” on the key. So he sets off—in a highly systematic and obsessive way (by triangulating and visiting every Black on the island of Manhattan)—to find the lock that fits the key.
Yes, he goes door to door—and yes, most people let him in (including the stellar acting duo of Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright, as a troubled married couple). Just go with it. Eventually, he will be joined by Max von Sydow, a man with a dark secret of his own who is renting a room from his grandmother, and who may or may not be Oskar’s paternal grandfather. Again, there is nothing cuddly about their relationship—it is contentious at times, even prickly. But a bond is forged and they make a strange odd couple—a hulking, silent man, stooped by age and regret, and a scrawny, garrulous boy, gaping suspiciously at the world.
The acting here is quite remarkable. Young Thomas Horn obviously has to the do most of the heavy lifting—and he’s utterly convincing as the oddball genius, nary a cute-child-actor tic in sight. (Not incidentally, he was discovered when he was contestant during Kids Week on Jeopardy!). Tom Hanks is wonderfully menschy and solid—the perfect idealized dad. Sandra Bullock breaks your heart as the grieving mother—she had watched with curious fondness the special bond between father and son and now silently fears that her child will be lost without his guiding role model. As for Max von Sydow: How is it that he’s never won an Oscar (and only been nominated once)? Older actors can fall prey to the cutesy trap, too—Cocoon-it-up, if you will—but von Sydow never flinches. There’s not a twinkle to be found in those hooded, haunted eyes.
There have been quite a few good 9/11 films—United 93 had a cinema verite-style brilliance and I loved Spike Lee’s subtly mournful 25th Hour—but Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was certainly the most cathartic. It’s about the all-important relationships we forge in this life—and the gifts we unintentionally leave behind.