Film Review: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

(Published in Issue 7 of my publication In Retrospect)

Directed by Stephen Daldry with screenplay by Eric Roth, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is based on the 2005 novel of the same name written by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Focusing on a young autistic boy named Oskar (Thomas Horn), the story follows his journey when, after his father (Tom Hanks) is killed in the September 11 attack, he discovers a key that once belonged to him with the word ‘Black’ written on it. Determined to find out who Black is, Oskar searches all around New York for information about what the key could mean, whether his father was trying to deliver one final message to him and, more importantly, what it will open. His search brings him in contact with others all around the city whom he takes photographs of and listens to their stories. With the help of his mother (Sandra Bullock) and his mute neighbour The Renter (Max Von Sydow), who offers to help Oskar search the city, the message he ultimately finds isn’t what was expected, whilst the emotional journey brings with it many revelations that may help his family to cope with the tragedy back-dropped around this horrifying event.

Although the film is based on a highly acclaimed book, this recent adaptation has created a huge stir from critiques, with many mixed, yet all deeply held, opinions. The phrase ‘love it or hate it’ is being used at its extreme here as, whilst many will ultimately agree with this review, there will be just as many who feel the complete opposite. This is because Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close isn’t your typical family drama. It may touch closely on themes and subjects that we are used to dealing with in films, but the main aspect that has caused a sway in opinions is the controversial use of the World Trade Center attack that occurred in New York on September 11th, 2001.

Reflecting on the film’s mixed reviews, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was tagged as the worst film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this year. Ultimately it did not win, so we must ask whether it was too soon for a film based on the event to be released. Whilst many believe that it is too soon, it’s not as if this is the first 9/11 film to be released. Remember Me only very slightly used the attack in its storyline, but two films from 2006 were completely based on the event, with Nicolas Cage starring World Trade Center which focused on two police officers trapped under the rubble of the building, and United 93 which was a real-time account of the events on one of the planes hijacked on the day. I didn’t see either of these films when they were released but I don’t remember the same controversy arising for them, so why now?

Unlike the latter films, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close deals heavily with the effects of the event but it is not a story solely based on the attack, it rather uses the event as a back drop. Not constantly having the horror of the event in focus is why I thought the use of it worked, as it dealt with its themes of tragedy and loss really well. With only a small glimpse of the funeral and no other focus put on the death of Oskar’s father, apart from the family dealing with their loss, we are only faced with a situation that is a result of the attack rather than the attack itself.

Saying this, however, there is one scene that is repeated a couple of times and used in various ways, which is the image of a man falling. Whilst never in detail, and disregarding the great cinematography that is used here, it is still enough to give an impact which, as a result, has led some to believe that the film did push the limits. But it is the contrasting story of Oskar that grabs my attention in the film, with mots of the emphasis on the family’s attempt to help their son deal with both his autism and the death of his father by encouraging him to talk to other people.

Fundamentally, I think that these two stories are balanced well enough so that the use of the event fits in without causing offence or produce any negativity, but another aspect that has helped form the controversy of the subject in this film is the use of Oskar as the film’s central character. The film, just like the book, is narrated by Oskar and features his voice reading over the scenes and his flashbacks as we follow his journey through his eyes. For this reason, the film reminds me of The Lovely Bones, another hard-hitting tragedy where the story is narrated by a young person so that we understand the event from their, albeit naive, perspective. Oskar even uses similar phrases to that of Susie Salmon’s in Alice Sebold‘s novel and Peter Jackson‘s adaptation, talking over himself and explaining his thoughts and process, whilst referencing his situation to much bigger events in the universe.

Whilst this approach has some great benefits for story-telling, it has also led some to feel that it has desensitised the event, as Oskar’s perspective doesn’t incorporate the extreme and global effects that the event actually led to. Evidently, it has benumbed the event a little, but I wouldn’t say that it is ignorant of the real effects of the attack as that’s just not what the film intended to highlight in the first place. We don’t need to be reminded of how bad the day of 9/11 was, that’s something everybody will remember for all of their lives without any film probing it into our minds. Looking at the story through Oskar’s point of view is just another take on the subject which, in context, it does brilliantly.

However, also because of this narrative approach, another reason to love or hate the film evolved as the character of Oskar, for some, can be quite annoying. Whilst the film doesn’t directly mention Oskar’s autism, it’s obvious that he is a socially awkward boy who finds it hard to talk confidently to people outside of his family. This is because that, in the film, his character is built up excellently. With the first ten minutes of the film introducing us to Oskar’s family before the attack, we are able to understand a lot about his character by seeing him happy with his father and without any worries in his mind. As we continue through his journey, however, his character begins to open up more and more. Through a number of scenes where Oskar begins listing something, both in narration and in conversation, he begins to open up his unconscious mind as his lists turn into hyperventilating rants. From this, we begin to understand more of his true fears and worries, which ultimately makes it really easy for the audience to sympathise with him.

As for the acting of Horn himself, I think it’s important to understand that he got the role, his first ever acting job, after appearing on an American quiz-show. With no experience as an actor before filming for Extremely Loud, whether you like his character or not I think Horn must be applauded for his abilities alone. Child actors that portray this kind of emotion are hard to come by, but Horn portrays this troubled yet compelling character to a great level.

I also enjoyed seeing Hanks, for the small part of it, in the role of a family man. Undeniably a great actor, and a brilliant one to have attached to the film in the first place, it is not often that we see Hanks in this type of character. He may have only had a small role in the film, though his character still had the biggest impact on the film, his role was one of my favourite things about this film. The same can be said for Bullock too, who portrays a much more mature adult that what we often see of her. It’s a shame that we never really got to see these characters together often, but individually they both suited their roles so well, and it is this solid family chemistry, under the circumstances, that helped to provoke an emotional response from the film.

But let’s not forget, of course, Mr Von Sydow. Awarding the film its second Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, Von Sydow is another big and excellent character in this film, even though he doesn’t say a single word. The introduction of his character mid-way through the film is, I think, where the film comes alive. From his first meeting with Oskar, Von Sydow makes a big presence but, unfortunately, it just didn’t go anywhere. With his character featuring in a number of dominating scenes, having to both introduce his character and then see his departure, I think that it needed to build up to more of an emotional response at the end. The film does attempt to do this but it just doesn’t tug on your heart-strings well enough.

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