Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Details: (M), 129 mins, In Cinemas 23 February 2012, United States, English
Synopsis: Ten-year-old Oskar Schell lives in New York City with his parents. He spends a lot of his time with his father, playing a game called Reconnaissance Mission. Oskar (Thomas Horn) loses his father (Tom Hanks) in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001; his father was on the 105th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center and dies in the collapse. Subsequently, Oskar goes on a journey across New York to search for the lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father.
9/11 drama has trouble with tone.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is set in Manhattan, a year after two planes took down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. The story pretends to be about a kid’s dream life, but it’s really about what it understands as an American national trauma.
The film is full of images and sounds that flashback to the New York experience of the September 11, 2001 attack. Even its very first shot, a stunning slow-motion vignette, references the terrifying melancholy of a media photo that went around the world: ‘The falling man’…
Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of Forrest Gump, the movie is set up as a slice of imaginative fiction about death and ‘letting go’, to use fashionable TV therapy-speak. It’s part fairy story and all metaphor, something about how even though we are all strangers we are all somehow connected by a shared sense of loss.
The plot plays this theme-point out: Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) lost his dad, Thomas (Tom Hanks), in 9/11. Twelve months after Oskar, who may or may not have Asperger’s Syndrome, is quite mad with grief. Oskar has a secret ‘shrine’ to his father; he’s kept the answering machine voice messages Thomas left as he waited to be rescued as the tower burned…
At first, Oskar’s obsessiveness seems sweet and necessary, and somehow right. Thomas was Oskar’s best friend, a great dad who gave him a love of games, learning and adventure. Then, amongst his dad’s possessions, Oskar finds a key, like the kind used for small safes or deposit boxes. His only clue is the word, “Black”. Oskar, his mind full of mystery, feels that if he finds what the key is for, it will somehow re-connect him with his dead father. He makes a list of 472 people with Black as a surname that live in the city, makes a card index system, a map as a reference and he tracks each person one by one right across New York.
None of the people he meets know what the key is for, and none of them knew Thomas. In a different movie, Oskar could be a real pain in the neck, though here he’s constructed as something of a would-be charmer. He’s full of quirks and oddball weirdness; he carries a tambourine – like a comfort blanket – and rattles it (to keep the bad vibes at bay!). He’s an incessant chatterbox who likes word play. He’s completely self-absorbed and demanding but in a beat he can assume a totally inappropriate physical and emotional intimacy with a stranger that’s equally off-putting. Most (though not all) of the men and women Oskar encounters have sympathy for a little kid whose father was killed in an event they themselves experienced, in their own way.
Oskar’s quest is, of course, crazy, dangerous and unlikely, and screenwriter Eric Roth and director Stephen Daldry try to undercut the whimsy. The script is very dark, even angry, and the performances are played in an intense deep way. The movie has a gloomy, weighty feeling. Sandra Bullock plays Oskar’s mum and her scenes seem to be dropped in from another, harsher, crueler movie. Oskar gives her hell, and Bullock, wearied and teary, just takes it. (The relationship does make sense, but getting to that climax is heavy going.) I haven’t read the book, but it’s a film full of writerly conceits; symbols, allusions and literary techniques abound.
Oskar’s world is full of deceit, cryptic clues, cubby-holes and mysterious figures that drop into his universe, offer some advice or trusim and move on. (One of these characters is a mute played by Max von Sydow, a wise old man.)
Stephen Daldry must have decided to take the title at face value because he seems to have directed the movie in bulk – everything in it, the emotions, the images, the sounds and the story points are oversized and encrypted with significance. Perhaps Daldry was buying into a movie-trusim that is supposed to come from life: for a kid everything seems so much bigger, so much more important.
The technique has one obvious plus: the movie looks and sounds fantastic. (The photography, all soft light and shadows, is by Chris Menges.) Still, the film feels amiss. I don’t think it’s because of Oskar’s character, like a lot of critics. It’s actually quite bracing to see a less than likable and sweet kid character in a movie (and Horn is really great). I think the issue is with the premise itself. It is very much a movie that wants to talk about grief in the face of terrorism. In the pop-speak of media pundits, the film frames acts of terror as “inexplicable”.
The movie, so haunted by 9/11, never evolves into something richer and deeper that it so often promises to be. It closes on a note of reconciliation in a blast of sentiment that’s crushing after nearly two hours of feverish sub-teen psychodrama, mostly because it fails to come to terms with the cruelties at the centre of its narrative. It’s meant to feel good, but it just plays like a cheat. ‘Moving on’ here is nothing more than a celebration of movie-logic, where all Good Things are affirmed and the Bad Stuff washed away by happy tears and love.
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