Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - movie review
Who's saying what
Suffice to say, the story has polarised audiences. Despite it being nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award this year, it's been labelled mediocre, self-important and has come under fire for attaching itself to the most dramatic event in New York's recent history.
But here's the thing: it's a Jonathan Safran Foer novel at its base - not some Stephanie Meyer dross. So it's at least not the worst film since Breaking Dawn.
The film's protagonist is the verging on autistic Oskar Schell (played by Thomas Horn), an intellectually curious, overly-analytical, hyper-reasoned nine-year old -- a sensitive, selfish, socially awkward and sometimes callous little boy who is plagued by fears, and who appears utterly lost in his own grief.
When his mother (played by Sandra Bullock) can't explain to him why the World Trade Center was attacked, nor why his father (played by Tom Hanks) died, he draws inwards, lamenting the loss of what he believes to be the only person that he connected with. While his mother mourns the loss of her first love, she struggles to communicate with her precocious, slightly neurotic son who seems adrift without his father's presence. He wishes it was her in the building. So does she.
While rummaging in his father's closet searching for some tangible connection to his dad, Oskar finds a key in a vase, in an envelope that is labelled only, "Black". He assumes it belonged to his father, but is now meant for him to discover what it might unlock. This becomes his reconnaissance mission; an effort to discover a world in which his father's presence might still exist.
Oskar soon discovers that there are 417 people listed in the phone book with the last name Black, and so he vows to visit each one in an effort to see what they know about the key and his father (let's all be grateful the envelope didn't say "Katz" or he might still be looking). And so, clutching a tambourine (its noise calms him), a homemade map, his father's trusty camera and an Israeli gas mask (you can never be too safe!) he sets off on a journey across New York's five boroughs.
The ensuing visuals—close ups, blurred landscapes, overly-deafening subway noises—make the viewer uneasy; the hyperactive visuals pandering to Oskar's anxieties. Those of which include, but are not limited to, tall buildings, loud noises, public transport, old people, groups of people, people looking up, and people eating meat.
It's not a story about collective grief, but one that is myopic, focusing intently on Oskar's personal experience. As he comes to realise that a lot of other people lost something or someone also, his burden is shared, and his boots become lighter. None of the peripheral stories matter however -- just like the lock to the missing key doesn't really matter. It's simply a story about a boy who is clouded in trauma, longing for understanding and not knowing how to relate to anyone.
Because of this, much of the film's criticism has fallen on the Oskar character's shoulders; "He is mean to his grieving mother!" "Obnoxious to total strangers!" "He annunciates with too much zeal!" They cry.
"I found his unsupervised journeys for cutesy quests throughout New York City to be dubious" wrote one critic. Sure, but do all kids need to be kid-kids? Can't one be allowed to roam a large city on his own and meet strangers and step into their homes and talk to them about this key hanging around his neck for his own selfish, grief-stricken reasons, for fictions sake?
Anis Shivani wrote in a Huffington Post article that the issue lies with the novel itself, saying Foer "Rode the 9/11-novel gravy train with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, giving us a nine-year-old with the brain of a twenty-eight-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer."
But is it such a bad thing to have a twelve-year-old with the adult-tendancies in a leading role? No, it's just the former impacting the latter.
And indeed, much of the film's criticism targets just that -- the inclusion of The Worst Day. While September 11 is an issue that has to be dealt with creatively at some point, the challenge exists in exploring stories in an interesting and tactful way that doesn't make you feel like you're getting whacked over the head with sentiment. Unfortunately, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been too cloying for most.
Andrea Peyser of the New York Post called it "Extremely, incredibly exploitive" labelling it a "quest for emotional blackmail, cheap thrills and a naked ploy for an Oscar."
Yes, the film is Oscar bait. It's one part Bullock, one part Hanks and one part damaged child trying to revive the memory of his dead father, who was lost in a devastating act of terrorism in the world's most powerful country. Goodness, it's basically a triple threat! But was Hollywood, with all its want for tragedy, supposed to leave the subject alone? Impossible.
September 11 was an event that changed the personal trajectory for a great many Americans; not to mention shattering the confidence of the world's most powerful nation (and ultimately sending them to war). No mean subject for a movie just on ten years after the fact. Critic Roger Ebert conceded that, "No movie has ever been able to provide a catharsis for the Holocaust, and I suspect none will ever be able to provide one for 9/11." This, perhaps, is true.
Nonetheless, director Stephen Daldry lands terrific performances from the entire cast, not just from Horn in his debut role. Bullock is patient and strained, Hanks is a playful, charismatic silly dad and Max von Sydow has earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Von Sydow plays The Renter, an elderly drifter who doesn't speak, but has "Yes" and "No" marked on his hands and a pen and pad for longer messages, and whom becomes Oskar's one confidante. He balances out the idiosyncratic dialogue from a boy maddened with sadness, and in a way, picks up where Oskar's father, Thomas Schell, left off -- offering an ear but not an answer to the overly-inquisitive young boy. The depiction of which has been seen as unreasonably twee for some.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn't so much a story about 9/11 as it is about one eccentric child's way of dealing with loss, and learning to cope with the emotional fallout that now pervades his daily life. And on a base level, I enjoyed it. It is, as Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers stated, a film that is "solidly crafted, impeccably acted and self-important in the way that Oscar loves." You might too.
- Three and a half stars
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close opens in cinemas nationally on Thursday, February 23.
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