Over a decade after the September 11th terrorist attacks, there remains a definite air of sensitivity about making films based on the events of that fateful day. The most famous of the releases in the guise of World Trade Center, Flight 93 and Fahrenheit 9/11 mostly looked at the human stories which emerged, but of course Michael Moore isn’t one for sentiment and went for the hard, cold criticism of the American government in its aftermath. Extremely Loud takes an opposite approach – that of weaving a fictional story about a family torn apart by the atrocity and a boy’s search for answers amid the fallout.
Thomas Schell (Hanks) plays a scavenger game with his son Oskar (Horn) to find an elusive sixth borough of New York. The game requires communication with people and isn’t easy – this is Thomas’ way of teaching Oskar how to look after himself and relate to others. Their relationship is very close and nothing can prepare Oskar for the events on what he calls “the worst day”. On the morning of September 11th 2001, Oskar is let out of school early without realising exactly why. When he returns home, he finds that his father and mother Linda (Bullock) are both at work. Upon turning on the television, he sees live coverage of the World Trade Center ablaze and notices five answering machine message from Thomas, saying that he is in one of the twin towers. When the phone rings again, Oskar is too scared to answer and his father leaves another distressed message which ends abruptly as the tower falls. He hides the answering machine in the closet and replaces it with a similar one so that his mother doesn’t find out.
A few weeks later, Oskar grows closer to his paternal grandmother (Zoe Caldwell), but his relationship with his grief-stricken mother worsens when she cannot explain to Oskar why his father died. He tells her that he wished that she was in the World Trade Center instead and she agrees, but then Oskar says that he didn’t mean it. One year later, Oskar finds a blue vase containing a key in an envelope with the word ‘Black’ on it. He resolves to find the lock which the key fits and sets about looking in the telephone directory for anyone with the surname ‘Black’ to see if they knew his father, even though there are 472 of them. Firstly, he meets Abby Black (Viola Davis), who is in the process of moving home following her divorce – after an initially hopeful conversation, Abby tells Oskar that she didn’t know Thomas. Oskar continues his search and finds that a mysterious man (Max Von Sydow) has moved in with his grandmother, but as they slowly befriend eachother, Oskar realises that he can’t speak due to an incident during World War II and only communicates by writing on a pad. The two set out to find the lock for the key or at least the owner, so that the mystery can finally be solved.
Adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel of the same name, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has a very touching premise and should have absolutely no problem in grabbing our attention and really feeling for the character of Oskar as he goes on a journey of self-discovery. Unfortunately, at the very centre of the film is a massive fault line that permeates every single scene – Oskar himself. His personality is the most repulsive, bratty, irritating little wretch you could ever wish to meet. You know, the kind of sugar-high child you meet at the supermarket that forces you to move a few aisles away to save your ears from unnecessary damage. Given that he has lost his father in such a horrific way would surely compel you to feel a great deal of empathy for him, but it isn’t long before patience is tested to breaking point and at times the TV ‘off’ button feels like a tempting proposition. There are some touching moments here and there, but Thomas Horn’s portrayal matches the tone of the book and makes the film adaptation a very difficult watch, especially considering the long running time. It is hard to comprehend why Safran Foer and indeed screenwriter Eric Roth didn’t realise that having such an unlikeable central character would be a problem, given the emotive theme.
The acting you could say, is actually pretty good. Horn’s Oskar matches that of the book and he has therefore done what is required. Considering that this is his first ever acting job (he was plucked from obscurity after winning the kids’ version of Jeopardy), it remains to be seen how Horn will fair in future roles – his next films Space Warriors and Joe’s Mountain are due for release next year. Tom Hanks, who features quite briefly, is good as the charismatic father in the flashback scenes and Sandra Bullock plays Linda with restraint although the screenplay doesn’t appear to reveal why she is quite content for her young son to wander the streets of New York with a virtual stranger – this is partly explained at the end, but perhaps adoption may be the answer for all concerned. Max Von Sydow was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (among others), for what is a performance of no real note. Maybe the Academy should have looked a little closer at some of his other roles that were far more deserving. Stephen Daldry’s direction is adequate, as long as you’re prepared for a rather indulgent shot of Tom Hanks flying down towards the screen.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close could well have been a triumph had Oskar not been, well, a git. There are some flashes (literally) of brilliance, but nothing to suggest that a recommendation is called for. This is not a film that you should rush to see, but if you do – don’t say you haven’t been warned.