The very idea of a 9/11 movie is still unsettling and, frankly, unappealing. No one is going to wander up to a ticket window and wonder, “Maybe there’s a nice 9/11 movie out.” Even I, who was safe in New Mexico with nearly everyone I knew, don’t want to be reminded of the actual events hiding behind those numbers.
Yet Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a film that, at the very inception of this review, I am going to beg you to see. All at once it represents everything I love about film, and it’s almost a shame that it happens to be about 9/11, as that fact is far from the most important aspect of this film. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a love letter to the quirks of humanity, reminding us that our neighbors are only as far out of reach as a handshake.
Make your plans to see this movie. Right now. I’ll wait.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Director: Stephen Daldry
Release date: January 20, 2012
The time-shifting narrative of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close takes us back and forth between the couple of days leading up to 9/11 and a series of days one year later. While the husband and wife pair of Thomas (Tom Hanks) and Linda (Sandra Bullock) are the high profile members of the cast, the story truly follows Oskar, a young boy whose close relationship with his father was cut short on “the worst day.” Struggling to keep some sort of connection to his father, Oskar discovers a key hidden in the closet and embarks on a quest to find the lock it belongs to.
There’s a very important element of this film that I need to get out of the way early: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is very weird. Perhaps its title portends this quality, but a sense of surreality is present throughout the film. Whether it’s the borderline-Asperger’s Oskar navigating the street of New York City safely aided by his trusty tambourine or the mute old man across the street referred to only as “The Renter,” this isn’t always a particularly serious movie.
In fact, it’s rather funny, and not in the “let’s throw in a joke for comic relief” way. The comedy is brought about by the humanity of the characters, whose quirks quickly begin to define the film. Thomas has the weirdest manner of shrugging that I’ve ever witnessed, and Oskar’s over-developed intelligence and lack of a mental filter lead him to saying some extremely odd things. Couple that with some unusual camera and editing work and there’s a prevailing feeling of strangeness that pervades every scene.
The people that Oskar meets on his journey also contribute to the surreal atmosphere of the movie. In fact, it is in those people that the movie’s greatest value is found. While Oskar is socially awkward and prone to shyness, his mission forces him to interact with people that he, and we as average humans, would shy from. Yet in each of them Oskar finds a different value, even the woman who refuses quite rudely to assist him. While his father may have been his perfect vision of a person, the flaws of everyone he meets are what really teach him about what humanity’s greatest strengths are.
Of course, I can’t describe the myriad emotions and personalities present without bringing up sadness. Yes, this is an incredibly sad movie – one that can, at times, feel cheaply so. It’s a film that tries to make you cry rather than allowing you to cry on your own. Is that an unforgivable offense? For me, no. If you’re allergic to a bit of melodrama, especially in a movie where your own real emotions may remain all too fresh, you may be tempted to suggest that the film relies on cheap tricks to bring on the tears.
If I could, I would ask you to resist that temptation. After all, this is a film in which exaggeration is central, not as a cheap trick but as a storytelling device. It’s a defining quality in the same way that, say, There Will Be Blood used it (BASTARD FROM A BASKET, anyone?). So when the film changes course into waters meant to make you weepy, forgive it. Trying to make you cry over the most horrific memory of many of our lives is far from the worst thing I can think of.
Still, maybe everyone won’t give these qualities a second thought. Perhaps we’ll all focus on the acting, which is stellar. Thomas Horn as Oskar stands as one of my favorite performances from a young actor in memory. Horn inhabits his character in a way usually reserved for seasoned actors, and I left the theater instantly wanting to see more of him. Hanks is, as always, entertaining and genuine, and even playing the “super dad” he brings to the role a sense of approachability that most actors would not achieve given the same role. Sandra Bullock’s performance, while strong, may not land among the best of her career, but this is not her show. A final mention must go to Max von Sydow, whose turn as The Renter is nothing short of brilliant.
I find it difficult to criticize the film in a meaningful way. The aforementioned melodrama may rub some the wrong way, and I foresee groups of people coming out against this movie simply because it’s about 9/11. They’ll say it’s exploitative. They’ll say it’s an unrealistic view of the event. They’ll say it’s not sad enough while suggesting that it goes too far trying to make us cry. And all of this is extremely frustrating. If we can’t tell stories using 9/11 now, then when? How long will it take for us to open our minds to accepting fiction wrapped in the most important event of this millennium? Shouldn’t we use it for good? Shouldn’t we bring whatever good we can out of “the worst day?”
I love this film, and I will evangelize it. I think it’s an incredibly important work, and the first piece of fiction involving 9/11 that adds anything whatsoever to the dialogue about the event. It also manages to take what I love about film – and fiction in general – and integrate it so closely with a message that the post 9/11 world needs to hear. This is a must-see.