Original US release date: December 25, 2011
Production budget: $40,000,000
Worldwide gross: $55,247,881
There have been a number of films to tackle the topic of the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11 of 2001 and the perpetual efforts of the people of the United States to deal with the losses resulting from those attacks and attempt to move forward. Based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same name, Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close deals with the subject matter from a unique perspective. While often, stories look at those events through the eyes of the direct victims or the common, everyday citizens who became heroes during the rescue efforts, this particular story looks at the aftermath of that day from the perspective of a young boy named Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn).
Oskar and his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) have a strong relationship and a close bond that is expressed by their shared love of puzzle-making and -solving. They toss brainteasers and mindbenders at each other and both relish in the challenge of taking the other’s best shot. Thomas uses these exercises to help build Oskar’s intelligence, confidence, and social skills, but that all comes to a tragic end when Thomas is killed during the events of September 11. Left behind with his mother and Thomas’s wife Linda (Sandra Bullock), Oskar yearns for the lost connection with his father. When he finds a clue accompanying a mysterious key in his father’s closet, Oskar sets out with adamant determination to discover what the key unlocks and hopefully receive one final message from his father.
I remember first seeing the film upon its original release and despising Thomas Horn’s performance as Oskar. I thought he was unnatural, wooden, and he took me out of the film. I have to say, I don’t really understand where I was seeing that. I’m not going to proclaim Horn one of the all-time great child actors, but with this re-watch, I think he did fine. Oskar appears to be somewhere on the spectrum and Horn plays it well. So, I’m not sure what my problem was, back in the day. Hanks is great as always, though his screen time is limited. Bullock has more time than Hanks but is also firmly entrenched in supporting player territory. This is Horn’s film.
Many people loved this film and many hated it. I can see both sides, as there are both good and bad components of the film. As mentioned, the cast is good (along with Max Von Sydow, who gets to play a different sort of role, almost as if he’s in a silent film), as is the premise. This is a story about coping with unfathomable loss when one isn’t old, mature, or experienced enough to know how to do so. The idea of Oskar searching for the lock that goes along with his father’s key is a clever one and certainly compelling (adding mystery to a weighty drama provides a unique twist to the presentation), but the execution is often lacking.
The dialogue is unnatural and forced. Characters don’t respond believably to each other, instead sounding like they are waiting to deliver lines that real people wouldn’t typically say. And not only is the dialogue overly contrived, but many of the scenarios in which the characters interact are strange and even occasionally off-putting. The narrative offers an explanation as to why so many adults in New York City would so eagerly and willingly open their arms to a young boy who knocks on their doors with no forewarning, but it doesn’t exactly explain why they would so eagerly allow him to witness their most personal moments or share their most painful and intimate memories.
I’ve seen some wonder how or why Oskar’s mission would help him cope with his father’s death, but I dismiss that question as I find it illegitimate and inappropriate. Everyone deals with loss in their own way, and movie critics are not psychologists. And they are certainly not child psychologists. And they are even more certainly not experts on children with emotional development issues. So, I’m not about to question Oskar’s motivations. But I do have a hard time buying that this story could have actually played out in the way the film presents it. I suppose it’s technically possible, but most everything is possible. That doesn’t make it plausible. And, as well meaning as this film is, any attempt to deal with such a raw, real, resonant happening needs to do so in a way that is equally raw, real, and resonant.
The film is resonant to a degree, but that’s more due to the subject matter than the effectiveness of the storytelling. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has its heart in the right place but needs a little more filmmaking experience behind the camera in order to reconcile it in a more appropriate manner with the real-world events by which it was inspired. I wouldn’t say it’s not worth watching – especially for fans of Hanks and/or Bullock who both do good work, despite their limited screen time – but be prepared to feel somewhat perplexed by the events as they play out, even as they lead towards a somewhat touching conclusion.
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