Earlier last year, Beautiful Boy gave us an in-depth look at the aftermath of a gruesome school shooting. It’s a topic that has been explored before, but not quite in that way. While there have been many films about the horrific attacks that took place on September 11, 2011, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a very unique take on how the attacks affected one little boy and his family.
Nine year old Oskar Schell (played by newcomer Thomas Horn) is brilliant but has many social quirks that give him anxiety in new situations. His father (Tom Hanks) recognizes this and has created a special bond between him and his son by devising games that take him around New York City and force him to step out of his comfort zone. On September 11, what Oskar refers to as “The Worst Day”, his father is attending a meeting in the World Trade Center and is killed. Oskar arrives home from school to find messages on his answering machine from his father, listens to them, and hides the answering machine from his mother in a secret place.
A year later, Oskar finally works up the confidence to go in his father’s closet and accidentally finds a key in an envelope with the name “Black” written on it. He is certain that his father has left him something, and he begins his search for the lock that the key fits. He carefully arranges a map of New York City, divides it into boroughs, and figures out exactly how long it will take him to find every person named Black so he can find the lock.
Meanwhile, his mother (Sandra Bullock) is dealing with the devastating grief of losing her husband, and the grief of slowly losing touch with her son who feels no connection with her. Oskar feels that his father was the only one who understood him, and takes out a lot of his anger on her.
Oskar also feels a connection with his grandmother who lives in an apartment across the street. She is patient with him, and speaks to him in a way that he can understand. She has recently begun renting out her spare room to a mysterious older gentleman (Max von Sydow) who doesn’t speak, and one day at her apartment, Oskar convinces him to come along with him in his search across the city. Slowly, Oskar and the old man form a bond, and Oskar finds comfort in the old man’s company.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 best-selling book “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” instantly became one of my all-time favorite books when I read it last year. For some reason, Oskar’s quirks made him more relatable, more fragile, and all of the emotion that he’s dealing with seemed even harder for him to process. The book has been criticized of being too “precious”, but I disagree. While Oskar doesn’t necessarily have a diagnosed condition, that doesn’t mean his social anxiety doesn’t exist. It’s very real to him.
My biggest concern when the movie adaptation was announced was that they simply wouldn’t be able to recreate that character. Newcomer Thomas Horn, who speaks three languages and recently won an episode of Teen Jeopardy, is pitch perfect as the complex boy. He speaks with conviction and wisdom far beyond his years, and still exhibits child-like frustration at not being able to fully express his feelings or make sense of his father’s nonsensical, tragic death. Sandra Bullock makes her first onscreen appearance since The Blind Side, and plays Mrs. Schell with patience, heartache, and unfailing love for her son. Tom Hanks has very little screen time, but that’s nothing new to fans of the book. The flashback scenes with Oskar are so sweet, especially their oxymoron battles. They shout back and forth “Deafening silence!” “Living dead!” “Seriously funny!” “Original copies!”, battles that Oskar continues with the old man.
One of the biggest things that the movie leaves out is the backstory of the old man, but really the story isn’t all about him. Oskar is the star of this show, and Horn shines in every single scene. Even with some of the changes to the story, director Stephen Daldry should be commended for such a true adaptation of a best-selling book. The film also looks beautiful, with bright, whimsical colors that counterpoint the serious subject matter. It looks almost like a fairy tale, and it could almost pass for one. Oskar’s father did tell him tales of a sixth borough in New York City that magically floated away. The child-like look of the film only brings the audience closer to seeing the world through Oskar’s eyes.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close had a limited release on Christmas Day and will see a wider release in January, but critics have been ripping it to shreds calling it intentionally emotional, criticizing it for being a tear-jerker, and have said the little boy is obnoxious and overly rude. Of course it’s emotional, the subject matter calls for it, but the film is heartfelt, honest, and sincere, and one of 2011’s best films.
Director: Stephen Daldry
Notable Cast: Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Max von Sydow
Writer: Eric Roth based off “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer