I doubt that anyone who lived through the events of September 11, 2001 could remain completely unmoved by the story of how one boy deals with the death of his father, who was trapped in one of the World Trade Center towers that morning. There are many painful, poignant, and highly-fraught moments in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, simply because they remind us of what so many of us experienced that day, even from afar. But this drama, under the skillful direction of Stephen Daldry, aims to do more than merely arouse our latent emotions.
The movie asks us to deal with the aftermath of 9/11 by entering the insular world of a verbose 11-year-old boy named Oskar, played by newcomer Thomas Horn.How you respond to the film will depend almost entirely on how you react to Oskar, who could be described as engagingly eccentric or extremely annoying. He and his father (Tom Hanks) had a special relationship—the idealized kind one only encounters in movies—in which the fun-loving, imaginative dad created ambitious New York City adventures for his son. Oskar is super-smart but also wildly phobic: he has trouble talking to people and refuses to use public transportation, just for starters. His accidental discovery of a key, hidden in his father’s closet, sends him on the most formidable, and arduous, expedition of his life, to find its possible owner and literally unlock its secret.
The boy is desperately trying to understand the irrationality of his father’s death—and to deal with an overpowering feeling of guilt over his behavior that fateful morning. But the cure for Oskar’s severe case of shell-shock, in Eric Roth’s adaptation of the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, seems artificial and contrived to me. It’s a metaphoric construct that, in another context, would be viewed as whimsical. I just didn’t buy into it.
At the same time, I can’t deny the effectiveness of some individual scenes. Viola Davis, as the first person Oskar meets on his odyssey, can break your heart with just one look. Max von Sydow creates an appealing, grandfatherly character without speaking a word of dialogue. My feelings about young Thomas Horn veered from empathy—in some of the more emotionally-wrought scenes—to exasperation. And much as I like Tom Hanks, I never believed his character; he’s about as real as Ward Cleaver.
I’m sure some viewers will connect with this film; I would never begrudge anyone’s response to a subject that is so personal. We could all use a movie that offers a cathartic means of processing the unreality we witnessed a decade ago. For me, this isn’t it.