You wouldn’t think a movie that opens with an up-close image of a character falling to his death on 9/11 would run the risk of being too cutesy, right? But that is among the charges leveled at Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, director Stephen Daldry’s taxing but ultimately rewarding adaptation of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel.
In the decade since the terrorist attacks on New York City, Extremely Loud is one of the few films that have tackled the subject head on, as opposed to keeping it in the periphery. It views the tragedy through the eyes of young Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a precocious lad whose flights of fancy and peculiar personality led to him being tested — inconclusively — for Asperger’s. But Oskar’s dad (Tom Hanks) not only understands his son, but also is his closest friend in the world. After the father dies in the World Trade Center, Oskar is lost, and he believes a key left behind in his father’s closet will help him learn some unknowable truth about him and keep his memory alive.
As the audience, we can recognize that the quest for the lock that fits the key — an often cloying journey that takes Oskar to the doorways of dozens of very understanding strangers — is a confused boy’s way of working through his grief. But even as we ache for Oskar’s loss, the character is a difficult one to embrace. Newcomer Horn never wavers in his commitment to the performance, but there’s an unsettling quality to his particular brand of beyond-his-years maturity that kept me thinking that he would be the perfect candidate for Hollywood’s next reboot of The Omen.
For all its dabbling in indie-film quirkiness — the Wes Anderson-style shot compositions, Oscar nominee Max von Sydow’s character who communicates solely through handwritten messages — Extremely Loud is ironically at its best when it plays it straight, relating the stark terror the world felt on Sept. 11, and the hopeless uncertainty that followed. Sandra Bullock is the film’s ace in the hole, turning the seemingly thankless role of Oskar’s mother into its biggest and warmest surprise.
Like Oskar, we still don’t know quite how to deal with 9/11, a confusion that conflicts with our innate need to make sense of things. Perhaps the main power in the film is seeing that even someone as odd and brilliant as Oskar feels this, too.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is available starting March 27 on Video On Demand. Check your cable system for availability.
© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.