Like the elusive heart-shaped key held by the title character in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, the anti-boy hero Oskar in Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close holds a key and a mission all his own. Also like Hugo, Oskar’s key presents a link to his deceased father, one that he hopes will somehow connect the pair passed mortality and time. But the difference maker between Scorsese’s stunning narrative of broken machines and people, and Daldry’s post 9/11 world is the latter’s post-modern understanding that the “bad guy” isn’t so easily identified by his black dog and his scowl, and that the true evil is pervasive, faceless, and random.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, here. Look at me, jumping right into Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’s thematic heart like an iiidiot. Anyway, starting from the beginning . . .
Based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tells the story of Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), an 11-year-old boy with social autism who lives in New York City. Abrupt, brutal, and eerily intelligent, Oskar is terrified of the busy, loud, chrome city around him and of most children his own age. His undisputed best friend is his father, Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), a jewelry store owner who through his “expeditions” with his son tries to take Oskar out of his namesake “Schell”. His quiet, loving mother Linda Schell (Sandra Bullock) sits by admiring the bond, but is never fully invited off the sidelines.
But of course this is a paradise lost. We know immediately within the film’s opening sequence, as Oskar sits from a limousine at a gravesite, that his father has died in one of the towers during 9/11. Oskar, unable to cope with the unexplainable cruelty of his loss, or of his own unexplainable cruelty towards his mother, finds the aforementioned heart-shaped key in a vase, hidden in his father’s things and simply labeled “Black”. Oskar feels it is a clue left from his father and begins one final expedition, searching through thousands of Blacks in New York City to reach his father once more.
With films such as Billy Elliot and The Reader, director Stephen Daldry has shown somewhat of a knack for directing young, fresh talents. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is no exception. With former Jeopardy champion Thomas Horn, Daldry has parlayed the boy genius’ frantic, often erratic energy into a truly electrifying performance. Although the emotional scope of the film is jarringly vast, leading to an exhaustive pace, Daldry does well to choose and direct an actor who may keep up with the steady sprint of emotion.
But Horn is just one of a cast of many talented performances. As the mute character simply known as The Renter, Max von Sydow does more with his face, body, and silence than most actors do with an entire script of prose. As Abby Black, Viola Davis adds another stunning and simultaneously brief performance to her resume. She also got the snot going again. That broad just refuses to buy Kleenex.
If there is one criticism to be made, it is that much like Oskar himself, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is just far too aware of its own tragedy. It relishes in it, enjoys every tear and ache of its heart. It indulges in every 9/11 cliché out there, as if it has just seen the same stock 9/11 footage on loops: trying to put an identity to the faceless man falling from the 103rd floor, seeing bitterness and heartache in every “I (heart) NY” souvenir, and screaming at the top of ones lungs against the Western world’s post-empirical fate. Perhaps these are over-played tropes of 9/11 tragedy, or perhaps I am just personally tired of them. But either way, the intellectual and emotional wasteland of Daldry’s post 9/11 New York feels like previously marked territory. Its trajectory does little for this post traumatic shock narrative, and leaves its characters to succeed in spite of it. Most of the characters do in fact succeed, but their backdrop of faceless, cruel high rises does little to support their emotional originality.
As far as its Oscar future goes, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close got, shall we say, incredibly lucky to receive one of the nine Best Picture nominations. I doubt very much it can outshine or out-buzz early Oscar favorites The Artist or even The Descendants, but there is always the possibility of an eleventh hour upset. Max von Sydow, the recipient of the film’s only other nomination for Best Supporting Actor, will have to pick up some steam if he’s going to out-old fellow senior citizen nominee Christopher Plummer. But hey, where there’s a will, there’s a sweet old man trying to steal your Oscar. Put them dukes up, Max.
What did you think of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? Did you read the book? Do you like old guys competing for awards? Share your thoughts with a comment or two.