In the 10 years since 9/11, debates have periodically raged about whether it was “too soon” to make movies about that awful event. “United 93,” which came out in 2006, was the official "Is It Too Soon" movie and now we have “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s bestselling 2005 novel – which was, of course, criticized at the time for being too soon.
I favor the notion that you make a movie when you make a movie and you let the chips fall where they may. There can be no timeline for this sort of thing. “Extremely Loud” has the advantage of a decade-long perspective on the events of that day, but at its most powerful – not often enough, alas – it brings back in a rush all the pain and sorrow.
The film follows a highly precocious 11-year-old New Yorker, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), whose father Thomas (Tom Hanks), a jeweler who was visiting one of the Twin Towers on 9/11, is killed during the attack.
Oskar and his father had a wonderfully chummy relationship. His bond with his mother (Sandra Bullock) is more distant.
To make some kind of sense out of the tragedy, Oskar, who narrates the movie, sets himself an impossible mission. Discovering a key in an envelope marked “Black” in his father’s closet, he decides to find the lock it opens by tracking down all 472 people named Black listed in all the boroughs of New York.
Most of the time his encounters are brief and dismissive. In a few instances, such as the one involving a woman named Abby (Viola Davis), he finds himself innocently walking in on a domestic crisis.
After a while Oskar acquires an ally in his quest – an old man, known only as “the renter” and played by Max von Sydow, who lives down the hall from Oskar’s grandmother (Zoe Caldwell). This dignified and mysterious gent is mute by choice; everything he says is written down on a notepad. It is Oskar’s strong suspicion that the old man is actually his long-lost grandfather.
Oskar’s precocity and obsessiveness is linked to a possible diagnosis of Asperger’s. (“Tests were inconclusive,” he dryly comments in voice-over.) He’s a wearying kid, and Horn – who is himself a prodigy and a champ on the junior edition of “Jeopardy” – can be a wearying actor. (It’s his first movie.) He never lets up. No doubt this has a lot to do with the way Stephen Daldry directed him. Still, the film’s title could just as easily apply to Oskar as to 9/11.
Amid this beehive of overacting, the nuanced, damped-down performances of Von Sydow and Davis, though she only has a few scenes, are like a balm. (Hanks and Bullock are good, too, though their screen time is likewise brief.) But the central dynamic – Oskar’s search for meaning in his father’s death – is obscured by the boy’s frantic odyssey, which quickly takes on a life of its own untethered to 9/11. It is only near the end, when Thomas’s increasingly panicky phone messages from that day are played out, that the film hits home.
How could it fail to? Daldry and his screenwriter Eric Roth make the mistake of showing bodies falling from the Twin Towers – it’s a mistake because its graphic power seems more exploitative than cathartic – but they otherwise thankfully refrain from pulling out all the stops. They don’t need to. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language.)
Sandra Bullock remembers 9/11:
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