September 11th, like any tragedy, can be easily exploited. It can be exploited for profit, for political gain, and for an easy strike at your emotional soft spots. But it can also be handled in a mature, thoughtful manner like Paul Greengrass‘ United 93. It’s been over ten years since 9/11 and we must start accepting that the event can be used in a story that’s not directly about 9/11. That’s an incredibly tricky proposition because of the easy route to exploiting our national tragedy, and that’s where Stephen Daldry‘s adaptation of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seems to be going at its outset. Daldry has to scale a mountain of negative expectations as we struggle to see how 9/11 could be absolutely essential to the story. We must also contend with a painfully affected character played by a child actor gives a off-putting, robotic performance. But Daldry’s brilliant direction ultimately brings the 9/11 plot point and the bizarre lead performance together to create an emotional finale.
Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a painfully precocious child. His oddball behavior was encouraged by his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) who sent his son on adventures across New York City to find certain objects and learn about the city’s “secret history”. Thomas dies in the attack on the World Trade Center, but Oskar is desperate to keep the memory of his father alive. One year after 9/11, Oskar finds a key in a tiny envelope in his dad’s closet with the name “Black” written on the envelope. This leads the hyper-organized Oskar to try and hunt down every Black in New York City and find out if his father left him one last message. Along the way, he discovers a wealth of personal stories, and befriends a kind but mysterious old man (Max Von Sydow), but ultimately Oskar just wants to hear one last message from his dad.
For its first hour, Daldry does everything in his power to keep the audience on board for this odd tale. The biggest challenge is Horn. He’s not only making his acting debut, but he’s the narrator and talks like an android who doesn’t understand these hu-mans. He says his mother (Sandra Bullock) had him tested and the results said he was normal, but sometimes tests can be wrong. The audience will most likely hate Schell at the beginning because he’s an overbearing kid who feels the need to regale us with benign trivia (it’s no accident Horn’s previous claim to fame was being a champion on Jeopardy!).
But as the story unfolds, the performance begins to work. It’s not because Schell becomes a more relatable character or drops his many, many affectations, but because the performance stays consistent. We eventually remember that although this is a very strange kid, there are lots of strange kids in the world. We avoided them on the playground and there’s a reason we never see Oskar hanging out with friends his age. There’s no way around whether a viewer will find Oskar annoying or not, but eventually we buy him as a real person.
That evolving acceptance also goes for using 9/11 as a plot point. Extremely Loud isn’t about 9/11. It’s about dealing with loss. So why not have Thomas die in a car crash or some other event that didn’t change our country forever? Because the story needs to have Thomas leave multiple messages to his family within a short time span and have the audience know how little time he has left. As we flashback to the morning of September 11th and Thomas speaking with his wife and leaving messages on the home answering machine, we’re heartbroken at how this man is struggling to convince his family—and maybe even himself—that everything will be okay. Calls like these happened during the morning of 9/11, but Daldry finds a way to make Extremely Loud use them honestly rather than copy-and-paste the tragedy of real people. We need to see how someone as strange as Oskar deals not only with the loss of his hero, but a loss that unfolded under these specific circumstances.
Extremely Loud isn’t contained to the deaths of September 11th because at its core the story is about the sudden loss of a loved one and our desire to find some kind of closure that will never come. The film’s greatest error is how it eventually brings Oskar to some kind of closure rather than have him accept he’ll always have a wound that will never completely heal. It’s a crucial misstep for a movie that is all about open-ended stories and how a lack of closure can be both beautiful and devastating.
Because Oskar doesn’t talk like a normal person, he has to explain to the audience that if the Sun died, we wouldn’t know for eight minutes because that’s how long it takes for the Sun’s light to reach us. Oskar then says how he wants to extend that eight minutes of his father’s memory for as long as possible. We can completely understand his desire to keep that relationship alive, and this understanding helps to get us through every strange and overcooked element of the story. The movie is built on a universal emotion, so we can tolerate Oskar’s need to carry around a tambourine as a safety blanket, his constant recitation of trivial knowledge and backpacking with far too much information (although back in 2002, we didn’t have smart-phones with a “Find Your Dead Father’s Final Message” app).
The script needs to lighten up on these affectations because there’s a limit. We can only take so much between the emotional story of Oskar’s struggle to keep his dad’s memory alive, his futile quest to interview every Black in New York City (and the movie skirting the issue that some of these Blacks may have moved or died), and the old man’s unnecessary writing-only mode of communication (he even has “Yes” and “No” tattooed) on his hands. Extremely Loud wants to show us how every story matters and there are interesting facets to everyone life, but there’s almost a level of competition as if to say, “Everyone is interesting, but Oskar is the most interesting person in the world. Just think what he could accomplish with a computer and an Internet connection!”
Stephen Daldry accomplishes the Herculean task of making this movie work. He knows how to perfectly pace the story and weave in Debby VanPoucke‘s thoughtful sound design, Chris Menges gorgeous cinematography, and Alexandre Desplat‘s moving score. The director can be forgiven for sometimes losing the difficult balance between the universal story of loss and Oskar’s overbearing quirks, but he does share some of the blame for not tightening up the ending. Screenwriter Eric Roth should have also tried to add a bit more realism to Oskar’s personality, and found a better use for Bullock’s character who only serves to answer the question of how any parent could let their child go on such a dangerous adventure and travel unaccompanied.
For the most part, the film is a significant step in trying to use 9/11 in a mature manner rather than using it as a cheap way to your tear ducts, and everything that feels off-putting at the beginning—Horn’s performance, Oskar’s quest, the character’s preciousness, and using September 11th in the first place—eventually feels natural. If you can stick with the movie through to the end and if Daldry manages to win you over, then Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close will tug at every heartstring you have or will ever have.