Release Date (UK) – 17th February 2012
Certificate (UK) – 12A
Running Time – 129 mins
Country – US
Director – Stephen Daldry
Starring – Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max Von Sydow, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, John Goodman
Director Stephen Daldry is no stranger to difficult and potentially upsetting subject matters, having depicted World War II and the holocaust in his previous film The Reader. With Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel by Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth, he deals with the aftermath of the events of 9/11.
A year after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001, Oskar Schell (Horn), an autistic 11 year-old is still struggling to come to terms with the death of his father Thomas (Hanks). He was in one of the towers on what Oskar refers to as ‘The Worst Day’. Oskar has never been able to connect with his mother Linda (Bullock) in quite the same way as he did with his father and misses the expeditions and games that his father used to set for him, sending him out on journeys into the five boroughs of New York in order to get him talking and interacting with other people and facing his own fears. When he accidently discovers an envelope containing a key in his father’s closet, Oskar is convinced that this a final message from his father, and a sign that means he must go on a quest to discover the lock that the key fits. The only clue is the name ‘Black’ on the envelope, so Oskar decides to visit everyone with that surname within New York City
At first glance Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close seems like the most obvious kind of Oscar-bait material, from a director not unfamiliar with awards nomination; a slightly whimsical tale set against the backdrop of a devastating event that still resonates to this day over 10 years later, it felt like a slightly tasteless and manipulative attempt to use that tragedy for a typical and emotionally false Hollywood film. So I was surprised that the finished result actually wasn’t as bad as I was expecting; there are moments and choices that do seem particularly misjudged, but on the whole I found it an emotionally affecting and engaging story.
For the most part the film is very well directed by Daldry. His manner of getting inside the head of Oskar to convey his confusion with the outside world is effectively achieved. He is also helped considerably here with the wonderful cinematography from Chris Menges (The Killing Fields) who manages to shoot New York in new and interesting ways. The film is consistently visually interesting as a result, adding to the richness of the story. Eric Roth does a good job of condensing a difficult novel down to feature length, it’s not without some issues (more of which later) but it keeps Oskar’s journey engaging and involving.
One of Daldry’s biggest triumphs is the cast that he’s managed to get for the film. Casting Oskar was always going to be a difficult challenge, as the character is a potentially alienating one that will be on-screen for most of the film. Thomas Horn turns out to be a real find however. Despite having no acting experience (he was a former winning contestant during kids week on ‘Jeopardy!’), he is very impressive and manages to make Oskar’s journey a very moving one. How you react to the film as a whole is likely to be affected by how you react to Oskar himself. There will be many who will find him too precocious and obnoxious. Considering the screen-time he gets, that would probably prove to be a stumbling block for some. Personally I didn’t have a problem with that, and found him to be a watchable and likeable actor. He is also well supported by a more experienced cast. Tom Hanks is fine as the father, and manages to make the relationship between himself and Oskar very moving despite the short amount of time he has on-screen. Sandra Bullock is even better as the mother. Most of the film’s emotionally affecting moments come from her performance and her interactions with Oskar. Her portrayal of a mother who is having difficulty connecting with her own son is exceptional. I personally would have liked to have seen more of her, as she does disappear for quite long periods during the film. Although there is a reason for this, it is a shame as this is one of the best performances that Bullock has given in a long time. In an early cut of the film Linda attended a self-help group where she met a character played by James Gandolfini (his name actually appears on an early trailer) but that subplot was cut. Max Von Sydow is also very good as ‘The Renter’, the mute neighbour who rents a room from Oskar’s grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) and becomes a companion on his journey. The idea of someone with as distinct a voice as Von Sydow never actually speaking may be an odd one, but he clearly relishes the idea of conveying emotion in ways he hasn’t had to before. Other actors making a strong impression in very brief roles include Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright as Abby and William Black, the first people Oskar meets and John Goodman as Stan the Doorman, who Oskar trades insults with.
Despite the many qualities of the film, I did have a few issues with it. The tone is, for the most part, quite sensitively balanced but there are occasional moments that feel slightly misjudged. A falling man motif seems particularly unnecessary, none more so than in the opening credits with close-up shots of a man falling set to Alexandre Desplat’s (otherwise fine) score. A scene where we see Bullock’s character watching the towers from her office window whilst talking to her husband on the phone, also felt a little unnecessary: giving us a little too much information, when it wasn’t particularly needed. Thankfully Daldry does stop short of actually showing Hanks’ character inside the World Trade Centre, though many will still feel he’s gone too far already. There’s also a slight vagueness to some of the film that is never satisfactorily explained. Oskar’s exact disorder for example. We are told he might have Asperger’s, but that the ‘tests were inconclusive’, as if making his disorder a specific one would have made the film more open to criticism. Making it a vague disorder seems like a bit of a convenient cop-out. Also the idea that this autistic child could be allowed to roam the streets (even before 9/11) interacting with complete strangers unsupervised seems a little incredible. There is an attempt to address this near the end when Oskar says that he could have been raped or stabbed, but it’s also conveniently dismissed. That there is never any suggestion that Oskar has seen a therapist is also hard to believe. Considering his condition and the trauma of 9/11, you’d expect Oskar to be receiving some kind of help but it’s never mentioned.
Despite it’s faults, I did find Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close a very engaging and emotionally affecting film. It’s sentimental for sure but I felt it earned that sentimentality in a fairly truthful and honest way. It clearly won’t be to everyone’s tastes and there are plenty who will find it distasteful and misguided with an annoying central character. Personally I think that, though the film is occasionally misjudged in it’s tone and use of 9/11, it is also a very well-meaning film. Not a great film perhaps but not the disaster I was expecting either, it is still worth seeing.