by Tim Ross
One of the central questions in the human condition is perhaps the most simple: Why? Whether through a relationship with a higher being or a deep investigation into the laws of science and nature, humans have always tried to understand why the crops failed, a child died or tragedy struck. In the years since 9-11, that question has likely been asked more than any other, especially by those who lost loved ones in the attack. And while there have been cinematic examinations of that tragedy, none have been more probing than “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”
Director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth have adapted the Jonathan Safran Foer novel into a film that circles around again and again to ask the question: Why? Why did young Oskar’s (Thomas Horn) father die in a tower in New York? Why did men he doesn’t know fly into the buildings? Each time the question is whispered, screamed or wailed by one of the main characters, it attempts to reach another aspect of their pain and crashes into the audience with the impact of the falling towers.
Oskar, played with aching honesty by newcomer Horn, is a brilliant, precocious and quirky 9-year-old New Yorker. His devoted father Thomas (Tom Hanks) is his companion, confidante and best friend. Schell, a Manhattan jeweler, gave up his dream of being a scientist so he could care for his family, but he engages his son in scientific inquiry and instills in him a desire to look for answers to nature’s mysteries.
When Thomas dies in the attack on the World Trade Center, Oskar becomes hopelessly lost. His mother (Sandra Bullock) and grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) offer love and support but Oskar’s loss is profound. Daldry handles the overwhelming grief and loss that comes with such tragedy with a skilled and sensitive hand and there are moments in the film that are almost unbearably poignant.
Oskar builds a shrine to his father in a hidden cubby that he visits often. He’s stuck in time – in the last moments he remembers of his father – but the memory only serves to drive him to hurt himself emotionally and physically. He is in danger of losing his childhood and becoming a completely different adult than his father had dreamed.
A year after the tragedy, Oskar comes across a hidden key and, believing that his father left it behind for him, sets out on a quest to find the lock it will open. The key, the quest and the people he meets along the way all serve as a symbolic way to unlock his grief and to move forward – to live. The heart of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is life, not death. Relationships are broken and repaired as those left behind try to understand how to live again.
Daldry and Horn build a detailed, complicated character in Oskar Schell and his journey is captivating. Horn is a star in the making if he can succeed where other child actors have failed in holding on to the honesty in his performance. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” opened the last week of 2011 for Oscar consideration. The film has not received much attention by awards judges, but it deserves yours.
Grade: 3 out of 4
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language
Cast: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures