This nation has been forced to bear witness to several moments of crisis throughout its history – moments which take on a level of mythological proportion, and which become permanent fixtures in the minds of the public. Pearl Harbor was one such incident, the assassination of John F. Kennedy another. Each generation has had its moment of panic, and for many living today, that moment was the attack on the World Trade Center, the plane downed in a Pennsylvania field, and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Like these other tragedies, 9/11 has become rooted in the American consciousness to the extent that it has become an icon of destruction and fear. But like all losses, there must be a move to overcome grief, while at the same time work hard to never forget what once was. This idea – both on an intimate and grand scale – is given beautiful tribute in a new, Oscar-worthy film called Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Oskar Schell is living with his mother (played by Sandra Bullock) exactly one year after his father (Tom Hanks) was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th. Oskar believes that his father has left him a secret he must unravel, and after finding a mysterious key labeled “Black” inside his father’s closet, he sets out to find this person who (or the lock which) may hold the answer to some unsolved secret left by his dad. The boy’s journey across the five boroughs of New York City becomes a stirringly profound vehicle for his intense feelings of guilt and incompletion, all of which are explored with tremendous cinematic skill by the film’s director, Stephen Daldry, and by a simply beautiful screenplay written by Eric Roth.
The world of Oskar Schell is something of a brilliant study of the world according to those affected by Asperger’s syndrome, which we are not certain that the boy has, but certainly, everything he witnesses is magnified in intensity to the point of becoming unbearable. And as someone who grew up seeing the world in a similar fashion, I can tell you that this movie is deeply accurate in how it conveys an existence in which all is extremely loud and incredibly close. Furthermore, the boy is given rousingly authentic treatment from young Thomas Horn, who has in one fell swoop proven himself to be a valuable and noteworthy talent, and who I see as having a promising career ahead – that is, if this is what he chooses to do with himself.
As for the rest: Tom Hanks isn’t much of a presence in this movie, and I wasn’t so crazy about his character for the time he was there. What made me believe in him was the utter devotion Oskar and his mother displayed towards his memory. Speaking of which, Sandra Bullock does better work in the half-hour she is onscreen for this movie than she did in all of The Blind Side, for which she won an Academy Award. Max von Sydow is also a notable force in this film, adding an effective counter to the strength of young Oskar, while at the same time doing much to help him break past his barriers.
This movie is not perfect – a slow beginning and an ending which pushes its luck are what hold me back from lifting it to high places, and I can’t help but feel that if they’d done a little more tweaking on the story, it could have been much better. But for what it is, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a moving, deeply insightful, and eloquent footnote to one of the most monumental moments in this nation’s history. It triumphs in its telling of the plight of one little boy faced with so much pain, and as he grows past the tragedy, it triumphs as an ode to the Survivor – the individual who displays bravery in the overcoming of their grief, and of the memories of their loved ones. I doubt many survivors of the actual event will see it, but this film serves as a beautiful tribute to each and every one of them.
Finally, it is a film which speaks to our basic need for an answer; how we as people are always searching for an explanation, or a conclusive response to “why?” It is a quality which makes us who we are, and which is capitalized by the determination and unique profundity of young Oskar Schell. Because of all this, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a beautiful tribute to the human spirit, and of all the horror and beauty – all of the pain and redemption – it is capable of realizing.