EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE: Roadshow Films. Out February 23rd. 2012. Starring: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Caldwell, and John Goodman. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Rated PG (Mild themes and coarse language). 129 min.
This American drama is a film of the 2005 book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer. It has been nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (for Max von Sydow). The title tells it all. It is a film about the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, when a terrorist attack destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. The movie begins with a body falling in slow motion out of the sky.
The movie focuses on Oskar (Thomas Horn), the son of jeweller, Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), who died in the attack. Following his father’s funeral, Oskar remembers the events set in train by that fateful day. He recalls that on September 11 (“the worst day” for him) there were 6 messages from his father, who was at a meeting on the 105th. floor of the World Trade Centre. He then saw the tower collapse on television. Oskar cannot understand why his father died, or why the Trade Centre was attacked. Looking much later in his father’s room, he finds a key in an envelope labelled with the word, “Black”. Keeping his search from his mother (Sandra Bullock), Oskar proceeds to contact everyone in New York City by that name. Two of those he has a lot to do with on his quest are Abby Black (Viola Davis), and a mute stranger called “The Renter” (Max von Sydow), who he realises after a while has to be his grandfather. The Renter joins Oskar to try and find out what the key unlocks, and teaches Oskar major lessons in life that help him cope.
Oskar’s search allows him to interact in different ways with many people who were in some way part of his father’s life. They include Stan the doorman (John Goodman) of his apartment building, his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell), and Abby’s ex-husband, William (Jeffrey Wright). William knows about the key. The key fits a deposit box in a bank, the contents of which give comfort unexpectedly to others in surprising ways.
Oskar prepares a scrapbook of his hunt, and titles it “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”. His mother has become aware of his quest, and she indicates to Oskar that she has always followed behind him. This re-establishes her relationship with Oskar, and demonstrates to him the extent of her love. Finally, Oskar returns to a special meeting place, and discovers a note from his dead father. The note rewards Oskar for his endless searching. Previously, Oskar had a fear of heights, and the film concludes with Oskar riding high on a swing, finally at peace.
This is a stylish, well-directed and photographed film about catastrophic events. It exploits sensitivity a little to fit awful happenings, and there is a feeling of slow-burn therapeutic release about the film, which never goes away. The values it espouses, however, are very edifying.
In its final unravelling, the film becomes very sentimental, but the acting throughout is dramatically effective. Max von Sydow as Oskar’s mute grandfather is wonderful, Tom Hanks is ideal for his role, and Sandra Bullock is quietly compelling in her part as the exasperated mother coping with her own feelings of loss, and the depression of a grieving child. Thomas Horn plays the part of Oskar splendidly, and manages the awesome challenge of acting a child, who suffers from Aspergers’ syndrome.
This is a film about happenings still raw in our collective consciousness. Its sentimental treatment of them maintains the power to enthral, but the film doesn’t really help us further understand, or confront the wider meaning of what happened on that day. It commendably uses tasteful restraint and not political passion or moral indignation to communicate its point of view, but it conveys complex individual hurt in relatively simple ways.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.