No matter how much time has gone by, it’s never easy to watch images from 9/11. Many New Yorkers still avoid the media every anniversary and can’t bring themselves to go downtown to see the memorial. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, tackles the subject head on, focusing on a jeweler who had the misfortunate to take a meeting at the World Trade Center on that fateful day. After the tragedy, his son tries to make sense of his father’s death.
The producers took a risk opening Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close on Christmas Day, 2011, possibly hoping that the film’s message of healing would resonate with audiences. Reviews, while praising the performances, were mostly negative and the film has grossed less than $30 million at the box office on a $40 million budget. Hopefully, two Oscar nominations, one for Best Picture, will garner the film the type of attention it deserves.
The film opens with a grim scene in the cemetery. Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks) died on 9/11 and because his body was never recovered, the family buries an empty casket. His wife, Linda (Sandra Bullock), sits by the graveside during the service, while his son, Oskar (Thomas Horn), stays in the car, upset that his father’s body is not in the coffin. Oskar, who was tested for Asperger’s (“The test was inconclusive,” he tells someone), can’t deal with anything that falls into the gray area. Why, he wants to know, was his father killed by people he didn’t know? His mother can’t answer that question, so he resolves to find out on his own.
On 9/11, Schell called home six times, hoping to talk with his son. (He had already reached his wife on her cell phone.) Oskar was paralyzed with fear and, even though he could hear the phone ring, he allowed the calls to go into voice mail. He buys a substitute answering machine, then hides the first, listening to the messages again and again, overcome with guilt that he didn’t pick up the phone.
After several months, Oskar works up the courage to go into his father’s closet, knocking a blue vase off a shelf. It shatters and inside Oskar discovers an envelope holding a key. Schell often initiated scavenger hunts, encouraging his son to talk to others and seek answers. The implication is clear: his father left behind the key for Oskar to find. When he finds the lock, he will unlock the mystery of his father’s death.
Oskar begins by visiting a locksmith who discovers that the word “black” is written on the envelope containing the key. Consulting phone books, Oskar finds that there are more than 400 people named Black living in New York. One, he reasons, must know what the key is for. The first person he meets, Abby Black, played by a marvelous Viola Davis, will turn out to have the answer, but the puzzle pieces will not fall into place right away. Oskar’s journey, a necessary one it turns out, will continue, acquainting him with his long lost grandfather played by Max von Sydow. By the time Oskar finds the person who can help him, he begins to come to terms with his father’s death.
Horn is in virtually every scene, a heavy responsibility for so young an actor. He more than holds his own against the veterans. His Oskar is a whirling dervish, constantly on the move and talking at a fast clip with a vocabulary far beyond his years. His personality is not an easy one to take; he is often rude and says unspeakable things to his mother. Grief takes many forms.
Max von Sydow has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Oskar’s mute grandfather. This is a genius at work. He converses with Oskar by scribbling notes on a pad, the often used “yes” and “no” written on the palms of his hands. Without speaking, he manages to convey, through facial expressions and body language, a wide range of emotions. Although the grandfather has been staying with Oskar’s grandmother (Zoe Caldwell), she identifies him only as “The Renter.” Oskar’s keen powers of observation quickly identify him as his father’s father. Their shrugs, Oskar says, are the same.
Sandra Bullock is heartbreaking as Oskar’s mother, trying to deal with her loss and hold onto her son who seems to be drifting away. Later in the film, we learn how far she’s willing to go to keep Oskar safe. Although Hanks’s time on the screen is brief, his scenes with Horn display a father-son relationship that is very special, making Oskar’s loss that much more devastating.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a cathartic experience. Yes, there are tears, but no explanation for this unspeakable tragedy. For Oskar, he finds what his father had hoped he would. The ability to conquer his fears and to, once again, find joy in life.