Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (review)

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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Thomas Horn

Incredibly Close to Home

I appreciate that many people have many problems with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but I confess that I don’t quite understand them. As a New Yorker who has lived her entire life (up until last year) in New York and was in New York on 9/11, I find nothing offensive here, nothing that descrecrates the memories of the dead, nothing that minimizes the events of that day, nothing that in any way is bizarre or inappropriate or distasteful.

Maybe it all seems too “light,” too “quirky,” too “flippant” to the decriers. I don’t get that, either. New Yorkers are tough folks, and even though we all flipped out on that day, we didn’t lose our weird, dark sense of humor. Not that this is a particularly humorous movie… but it is New York-ishly idiosyncratic. We all coped with “the worst day,” as the kid here deems it, in our own ways, some of them darkly funny, some of them weird, all of them uniquely personal.

It seems not in the least bit strange that nine-year-old Oskar Schell (newcomer Thomas Horn) might cope with his father’s death on 9/11 by imagining for himself one final task his father set out for him. Oskar has, it appears, always been a slightly odd child — he’s got a peculiar way of looking at the world; he’s more than a little shy — and Dad (Tom Hanks [Larry Crowne, Toy Story 3], in flashbacks) had always given Oskar games and puzzles that made him think in fresh ways and that forced him to interact with people and with the city. In one of them, Oskar was asked to discover what happened to the missing “sixth borough” of New York, which is a wonderfully fantastical way of looking at a city with a legendary past that has inspired numerous myths and tall tales… and it is a beautiful depiction of a father’s relationship with his son, a bittersweet pushing of the baby bird out of the nest.

So, after “the worst day” — which included a series of phone messages from Dad, trapped atop one of the World Trade Center towers, which Oskar heard on that morning when he was sent home early from school — Oskar finds a key in a vase in his father’s closet, and a slip of paper with a partial name on it, and he believes he must find out to whom the key belongs and what it opens. This, Oskar decides, is vitally important to his father’s legacy. He devises a plan to talk to all the people in New York City who share the name — it’s a common one: Black — because one of them will know something about the key.

Perhaps this is not realistic. Certainly some of the other elements that pop up — such as the strange mute neighbor (Max von Sydow: Robin Hood, Shutter Island) whom Oskar befriends and who ends up helping with the quest — are less than fully plausible. But this is fine. Extremely Loud — the script is by Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Lucky You), based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — is a dark daydream about coping with the secret guilts we all harbor, about the creeping horror of thinking about that day that all New Yorkers dealt with, about the new fears and panics that gripped the city (Oskar has a new phobia about people looking up at the sky; it brings a lump to my throat just thinking about how a child would react to that; my heart raced for months after 9/11 every time a plane flew over, which I could never not look up at). It’s about the saddest part of grief: learning how to let it go.

This isn’t a great movie. It’s not one of the best of the year, and an Oscar nomination for Best Picture is a real stretch. But it’s a pretty good movie. Director Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours) has nicely captured a child’s-eye view of the world, as well as how complicated and rich children’s emotions are, a fact that is all too often overlooked on film. (Thomas Horn is fantastic as Oskar, and in one gripping scene, he portrays a child’s anger with a power that I can’t recall seeing anywhere else recently, if at all.)

Perhaps the best thing about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the odd sort of independence it projects, one that too many Americans have let slip away in the years since 9/11. People here are traumatized in all sorts of ways, as Oskar discovers via the many different reactions he receives from all the Blacks he encounters, and not only because of 9/11. (Cuz, you know, bad shit is happening all the time, only sometimes it happens only to you.) And people are afraid in all sorts of different ways… including Oskar’s aversion to mass transit, and his general fear of being out and about in the city. But he overcomes it. He doesn’t let his fear stop him from living his life and doing what he needs to do. I wondered, at first, about the ridiculousness of Oskar’s mom (Sandra Bullock: The Blind Side, All About Steve) being completely oblivious to Oskar’s roaming around the city on his own, except the film does deal with that eventually, too: and then it becomes a commentary on the complete freak-out fear that so many parents have these days, the one that smothers kids and doesn’t give them room to grow and explore on their own.

There’s something almost quaint about the lack of sheer panic at the thought that something, somewhere is out to get you, so burrow under the covers and never ever come out. It’s strange to think that we’ve gotten more afraid as 9/11 recedes, instead of less. Are we so fearful these days that even a fictional tale of rejecting kneejerk fear feels wrong to some?

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