THE STORY – Oskar, who lost his father in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, is convinced that his dad left a final message for him somewhere in the city. Upon finding a mysterious key in his father’s closet, Oskar sets out in search of the lock it fits. Feeling disconnected from his grieving mother and driven by a tirelessly active mind, Oskar has a journey of discovery that takes him beyond his loss and leads to a greater understanding of the world.
THE CAST – Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Viola Davis, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright & Max von Sydow
THE TEAM – Stephen Daldry (Director) & Eric Roth (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 129 Minutes
With grief comes an infinite breadth of what-ifs. What could you have said or done differently if you had more time with a loved one? Or what would the future have looked like? What experiences on the horizon do you wish you could share with them? The more these questions play over in your mind like a nightmarish broken record, the more prolonged the healing process. Because as much as you wrestle to make sense of things, there are no satisfying answers, and the quest to find them is everlasting. Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” one of the most divisive films of the past decade, exploits this level of grief. Based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 book of the same name, the story follows a nine-year-old boy’s journey to find meaning after losing his father in the World Trade Center on September 11. The indescribability of the boy’s loss is pared down to a quest that involves a key, a mysterious renter, and dozens of strangers. In an attempt to form universal stories of personal and collective grief from the feelings of 9/11, the film diverges into self-serious and manipulative territory.
One year after the attacks, Oskar Schell (an over-the-top Thomas Horn) continues to relive memories of the worst day. In his bedroom, he has a secret space full of meaningful items, particularly an answering machine containing voicemails his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), left while in the World Trade Center. Carrying shame and guilt of not answering the phone that day, Oskar alienates his grieving mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock), and tries to process a new world the only way he seems to know how: by searching for clues. He accidentally knocks over a vase while rummaging through his father’s closet. Among its broken pieces rests an envelope with the word ‘Black’ written on it. Inside the envelope lies a mysterious key. Oskar immediately assumes that his father has planned this all out. The key becomes part of a scavenger hunt and a narrative Oskar creates in his head to make sense of everything. His coping mechanism mirrors the qualities of his father, who made sense of things through puzzles and mysteries. Oskar’s discovery awakens a sense of purpose; if he could just find the lock to this key, he could unearth new layers about his father and thus feel closer to him.
In search of the lock, Oskar journeys through the boroughs of New York City to visit everyone in the phone book he could find under the name ‘Black.’ He meets various people on his search and takes their picture as a memento for his travels. The majority of them are shown to be very sympathetic to Oskar. They share in his grief and represent the collective trauma of the entire city while also going through their own hardships. The film’s intentions are clear in wanting to encompass the interconnectedness of human beings coming together in the wake of tragedy. This makes for some moments of emotional resonance, which is a testament to the actors more than anyone or anything else. For instance, Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright, who play Abby and William Black (integral characters to Oskar’s quest), completely elevate Eric Roth’s paper-thin screenplay. It is thanks to the talent of these actors that one feels a connection to their stories.
There is a major disconnect between Daldry’s direction and Roth’s screenplay; in aiming to convey collective grief, they incorporate multiple representations of people in addition to Abby and William Black. However, all of these characters are incredibly underwritten. Instead of providing them with layers and nuance, the film opts for light-hearted montages of how they comfort the protagonist. They exist solely from Oskar’s perspective, which serves as a missed opportunity to explore a truthful emotional impact on New Yorkers in the aftermath of trauma. The film takes a similar approach to the character of Oskar’s mother, Linda. Bullock gives an effective performance and manages to exude genuine emotion from a manipulative screenplay. Still, her character is presented only in relation to grief and only from Oskar’s point of view. She is pushed to the sidelines, mirroring the wall Oskar puts against her as a symptom of his grief. The viewer does not get insight into who her character is beyond her circumstances. Part of why the dramatic moments between Bullock and Horn fall flat emotionally is the secrecy around exploring Linda’s perspective.
While it makes sense to focus on Oskar, given the narrative structure, the film leans too far into his perspective, to the point where all the other characters are held at arm’s length. There is a constant feeling of missing pieces to their stories. Given how ambitious and far-reaching Foer’s book is, one cannot help but feel that a miniseries adaptation would have had more favorable results. Daldry’s direction and Roth’s screenplay struggle to find a balance between portrayals of personal and collective grief. The film jumps from one thread to another — whether the strained relationship between Oskar and his mother, flashbacks to the worst day, the various New Yorkers with whom Oskar meets, and the mysterious man who has moved in with his grandmother. Each thread is handled in an overly sentimental way that makes it difficult to form a connection. Daldry knows which heartstrings to tug on and when, whether through incredibly upsetting imagery (first seen at the film’s beginning) or a character’s dramatic speech (particularly when Oskar tells his mother he wishes she died instead of his father). The storytelling feels forced as a result, which extends even to elements such as the exaggerated score and cinematography.
In a film that is extremely loud in conveying its themes, one of the more subdued depictions is that of the renter, played wonderfully by Max von Sydow. When looking for his grandmother one day, Oskar meets an elderly man who communicates through written notes and uses his hands (marked with the words “yes” and “no”) to answer questions. Plot points about the character are obvious but not explicitly stated, creating a compelling mystery around who he is and what he has gone through. Sydow invites the viewer to reflect on his character’s secrecy and form a connection through the moments left unsaid. The actor’s childlike energy, meshed with decades of life experience and dramatic poignancy, gives heart to a film that desperately needs genuine emotion. While the renter’s storyline feels tacked on, as opposed to organically developed, Sydow’s delicate work helps to stay invested. For every moment the actor is not on the screen, the absence of Sydow’s presence further emphasizes how he truly elevates the film.
The themes of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” are presented at face value, lacking the delicacy and sensitivity of deeper exploration. While the subject matter is harrowing and resonates on its own, the film’s depiction of such tragedy as a narrative plot point feels emotionally manipulative. In addition, the central story is constantly at odds between under-developed secrets – the origins of the key, the identity of the renter, the mysterious sixth New York borough Oskar’s father wants him to find – the majority of which are not engaging enough to follow from a cinematic lens. Thematically, the film struggles to balance portrayals of personal grief (through the protagonist’s quest) and collective grief (through the characters he meets along the way). While emotional resonance is to be found in some of the performances, especially Sydow, even their work is undermined by a frenzied and poorly executed adaptation.