2 Stars out of 4
I ask you this: are we ready for a film about 9/11 and, with that, are we able to feel any catharsis? Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I think, would argue yes – but with reservations. This new movie by Stephen Daldry, based on the 2005 novel by Jonathan Foer, takes its precautions and, rightly so, makes 9/11 a backdrop not the forefront to the story. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close instead deals with the universal fact of death, but it’s about the living. On this level, Daldry strives for a work of humanity and subtle emotions, but his execution is, alas, nobly scattershot.
The film’s protagonist is ten year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), who copes with the death of his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) during 9/11 by trying to find the lock-box that matches a key his father left behind. Oskar, unbeknownst to his mother Linda (Sandra Bullock), travels the 5 boroughs of New York on this mission with his tambourine. The plot, decidedly implausible, must be an unconscious allusion to Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, which was also about a young boy named Oskar who roamed Europe during World War 2 – only with a drum not a tambourine.
Of course, this is not World War 2, but 9/11 we are dealing with. With this, Daldry’s ambitions are high, but shouldn’t they be? Since this is a film about 9/11, laziness is not something audiences want to see. Daldry’s sense of style is unique: his characters are misanthropes, his frame likes to blur out of focus, and he relies heavily on silence and imagery. Daldry often uses his visuals to represent post-9/11 fears, which is a correct choice. The last thing audiences want is corny dialogue to generalize a sensitive and personal subject.
This is not to say Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is devoid of that. It has a few scenes that do not work, and start to play its own tiny violin. But this is not a fatal flaw. The biggest issue with the film is the script by Eric Roth, who also was the penman behind the better films The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Forrest Gump. Those were two films also about a quirky character’s journey of self-discovery, and were even longer than this. But this time the script needs a rewrite or two. Just over a petering two-hours, the film’s characterization and overall narrative development are as rich as a blank page.
Oskar’s travels offer a series of pitstops, which are so brief it seems the script didn’t have time to know what do with these introductions. Oskar’s new acquaintances all have the last name “Black” because that was the name written on the envelope that contained his father’s special key. This leads us to Abby Black (Viola Davis), her husband William (Jeffrey Right), and various others I suppose we must care about because…we must. The film borders on touching with the arrival of the reclusive Renter (The Seventh Seal’s Max von Sydow), whose muteness guarantees some gentle scenes. Plus, there’s a general rule: if you’re a mute or Max von Sydow, the audience has to love the character.
These scenes, and everyone involved, are all well-acted. Thomas Horn, however, is excellent as Oskar who – we learn – has a form of Aspergers. Daldry maintains bits of interest when he pries into Oskar’s psychology, which works to the film’s benefit since Oskar’s idiosyncratic condition offers a very vivid imagination. So when Daldry gambles with a surreal shot of father Thomas falling from the World Trade Centre we take it as Oskar’s trauma not an exploitative shot for shock value.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close treads sensitive waters. The film has been criticized for its relentless schmaltz, but I disagree. It sifts through the narrative with few cloying jabs, that is until a confrontation between Oskar and William, which is insultingly contrived and overly earnest. To distract myself from this matter, I absorbed the background which was lit with an intrusive, Michael Bay-esque blue.
Furthermore, the movie is crippled by underdevelopment. If Daldry wants an emotional payoff, he is unsuccessful. If he doesn’t, he is still incapable of developing a connection with the characters. Part of the problem might be Daldry’s hopes of capturing both Oskar and the New Yorker’s sense of post-9/11 trauma. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close needed less and, with that, funny enough it could have possibly done more.
The end of the film delivers no release. Unlike Oskar, we are catharsis-free. Perhaps with 9/11 that is impossible, but as a drama this should be essential. And Extremely Loud and Incredibly would argue itself as a drama not a 9/11 movie, wouldn’t it? I did not expect the movie to heal our wounds from 9/11, but for us to identify with Oskar’s relief. His relationship with his mother and father also remain murky, because the narrative is always too far ahead and covers too little. In the end, it’s an empty fairy tale lacking drama. There’s extremely little and it’s all incredibly contrived.