Monday, January 23, 2012


I don't understand all the criticism toward Stephen Daldry's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." We need to get past it being another movie about 9/11. Yes, it takes place directly after what young Oskar calls "the worst day," but the movie is about much more than that specific tragedy in our history. It's about how people cope with tragedy in general, how to deal with loss and grief -- and yes, in this example, how to view a city after such devastation. In that, Daldry succeeds in crafting something memorable. Through tricks in cinematography and vibrant art direction, he creates an original portrait of New York City. From the sights and sounds that disturb the rapid senses of Oskar to a miniature photography technique that makes the city look like a toyland, the movie is bravely quirky. This doesn't serve as a hindrance to the very human story at its center but instead wonderfully matches the quirkiness of Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 bestselling novel upon which the movie is based.

The biggest gamble was deciding who to cast as the precocious young boy, Oskar Schell. It's an unusual role that must carry the whole movie, and thankfully Thomas Horn absolutely does the job. The 14-year-old newcomer is a powerhouse getting inside the whirling head of Oskar with ease. He's perhaps autistic, could have Asperger's syndrome, but he's crazy intelligent and knows facts on just about anything. He's inspired by his inventive father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), who fuels his son's imagination with what they call reconnaissance expeditions. He urges Oskar out of his comfort zone, out of his phobia of going into the world to talk to people. The remarkable young actor dominates every scene showing Oskar as insufferable, erratic, eccentric and tiresome spouting off crazed rants.

After his father is killed in 9/11, Oskar comes across a key in his untouched closet and immediately becomes obsessed with it. He believes his father left the key for him so he could find the lock that it opens. The key came in an envelope with the name "Black" scribbled on it, and so Oskar concocts his own expedition to journey all across the city finding every person with that last name. While Oskar goes out every day on his venture, there's a rift between him and his mother (Sandra Bullock) because it's clear who he was closer with. This makes it increasingly difficult for his mother, and the explosive fights between them are gut-wrenching.

Oskar's first stop on his journey ends up leaving the most lasting impression. He knocks on the door of Abby Black (Viola Davis) who lets him inside and hears his story. She tries her best to help him but doesn't know what to do. Oskar's social skills don't even allow him to realize he's witnessing a marital crisis between Abby and her husband (Jeffrey Wright). Davis and Wright are superb here in subtle implication.

Oskar soon makes a friend, a mysterious old man referred to only as the Renter (Max von Sydow). He has moved in with Oskar's grandmother, cannot or will not speak, communicates only through the words "yes" and "no" tattooed on his palms or through written notes and has agreed to help Oskar find the lock. He is a reassuring companion for Oskar much like his father was. Von Sydow is brilliant even while wordless with soulful gazes and sly gestures that bring a wealth of meaning.

If Oskar's journey sounds preposterous, that's because it probably is. In that sense it plays a bit like a fairy tale, and maybe that's not the whimsical approach people want to the 9/11 tragedy. For me, it wins by wearing symbolism on its sleeve finding the key to unlocking the answer as to why anything cruel or irrational happens in the world. Best of all, among all the heartbreaking and intimate exchanges, it ends on an uplifting spirit, one of hope and rejuvenation. That's a fine message for over a decade later.

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