It's now more than a decade since the fateful events of 11 September 2001, and there has already been a number of films that have been set around the day, with stories told being somewhat reflective about the country's emotional state and well being as told through the lens of various filmmakers. Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is perhaps the more matured and measured telling that incredibly encompassed a fair bit of everything extremely horrific involving the Twin Towers collapse without trivializing it, and punches above its weight with its heart-wrenching story.
Based upon the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the film tells of how the loss of a father in quite inexplicable terms is dealt with by his wife and son. Tom Hanks stars in a small supporting role as Thomas Schell, a jeweller who shares a solid connection with his son Oskar (Thomas Horn), who suffers from what would be an unproven case of mild Asperger's Syndrome (or so mentioned in passing by Thomas himself), a boy who's really smart with an unbelievable memory for details, but can fly off the handle when being unable to adequately handle his emotions. The happy family situation with mom Linda (Sandra Bullock) and grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) would be shattered, with the bulk of the story dealing with how Oskar assumes a key belonging to dad that's accidentally found in the house, would probably hold a final message meant for him.
So begins a road trip of sorts to hunt down where and what lock the key would actually open, and along the way, like in Karan Johar's My Name is Khan starring Shah Rukh Khan as a man stricken with a similar disease, would meet with various people in his journeys, and the impact his mercurial trip would have on the lives of others, and vice versa, especially since he had struck up a friendship with the mysterious tenant (Max von Sydow) living in his grandmother's home, an elderly gentleman who does not speak a word, and whose identity you would probably have guessed when he appears. And you can count on the number of quirky persons that Oskar encounters in addition to those moved by his account why he's doing what he's doing, some expanded with a proper narrative, while others montaged together, or mentioned only in passing.
What made this film work is the excellent performance by Thomas Horn who plays the protagonist Oskar, whose shoulders the entire film sits on. If he was unbelievable in his portrayal, the story wouldn't work, period, and the young actor held his own against the veteran co-stars without being overawed. His Oskar will grow on you as you sympathize with his hurt, which will be amplified as the story moved along given the many secrets and revelations to be made in due course. There were many scenes that called for an dramatic outburst, which Thomas handled really well without the need to go overboard or over melodramatic. Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock together made it all vividly believable as a small family unit, although both had really bit roles to play, with Tom Hanks being heard more than being seen through some really harrowing voice messages, and Sandra Bullock being really key to that pivotal closure that tells of any mom's immense love for her child, which got questioned and challenged, that turned out to be one of my favourites scenes amongst many in the movie.
But of course Max von Sydow is getting all the attention here with his Oscar nomination for a non-speaking role, since his character doesn't speak for no particular reason and relies on a notepad, if not only to showcase how talented the actor is in being able to emote with a critical communications medium of speech being taken away from him, which he excelled. Before watching his performance I would have thought Christopher Plummer may have already bagged the award, but after doing so I'm not really all that sure now, and it could likely be down to the wire.
With a rousing yet moving score by Alexandre Desplat, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close deals with Oskar's guilt and his inability to recognize that emotion, nor being able to handle it with an emotional maturity, after all, he's only a kid despite having a relatively high IQ, has to struggle with his EQ and a condition. What worked wonders is how the film managed to reach out through its characters to those affected by the worst day of their lives as Oskar labelled it, and come to terms with things that happen seemingly in random fashion that offers little closure, of the symbolism of burying an empty box.
Some may feel cheated by the lack of a big reveal after the trouble and efforts gone through, but I thought that reflected what life sometimes dishes out to us, that there is almost always a lack of distinct answers, and even if not then there will always be shades of grey rather than distinct black and white. It's the little stories and moments in the film that contributed to its overall emotional weight, before the final arc involving mom that really sealed the deal, and opened up the tear ducts. The film may have gotten polarized responses like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, but in my books it's one powerful drama that hit all the necessary sweet spots. Highly recommended!