‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’ is a touching story of how a child deals with grief

Thomas Horn and Tom Hanks in 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' — Photo courtesy of François Duhamel

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the new movie from director Stephen Daldry, takes a look at how one young boy deals with the unimaginable. It’s a heartbreaking film that has unfortunately been tagged as exploitative, manipulative and overly melodramatic. The truth is: It’s one of the best movies of 2011.

Thomas Horn plays Oskar Schell, a curious boy with curious habits. Although we don’t learn much about his school life, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to imagine Oskar getting picked on at the playground for being weird and talking to himself. At home, with his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) and mother Linda (Sandra Bullock), his imagination is given free reign to develop and shoot off in different directions.

His father, in particular, is the one who helps Oskar water the seed of creativity. With clever games, catch phrases and inside jokes, the two feel almost like brothers, sharing the most precious moments of life side by side, laughing all the way.

All of these good times are pre-Sept. 11, 2001.

The day when the terrorists strike the World Trade Center, Thomas is killed and Oskar is left with no answers to his many questions. The worst thing that could happen for this child has occurred. In his young mind, there is no mending. Life is over.

But is it? As he sorts through boxes in his father’s closet, Oskar finds a key in an envelope with a cryptic message written on the outside: Black. The distraught boy takes it as a final puzzle from his father, a chance for him to connect one last time with the parent that left him all too suddenly.

The majority of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close follows Oskar on his journey to find a Mr. or Mrs. Black, the proper owner of the key. Perhaps this person will have know some additional information about his father, some hidden gem that will dull the pain he still feels over Sept. 11.

The cast of characters that Oskar meets along the way is varied. Many great actors populate the streets of New York City in Daldry’s exquisite film, including Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, John Goodman and Max von Sydow, the legendary actor who was Oscar-nominated for his role in the film.

It’s clear from the beginning of the 129-minute movie that Extremely Loud is based on a book. It has a literary feel to its pacing, convoluted plot line, which jumps back and forth in time, and subtle characterization. Eric Roth does an able job adapting Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, although Oskar’s story is probably still best told on the page.

The acting, especially from Horn, is effective. This young actor, who has never appeared in a major motion picture, is a true find. He plays the part with the right balance of annoying skepticism and endearing warmth. Oskar is a difficult role to play. Besides the obvious heartbreak that becomes a daily reality of his life, the character also has emotional problems connecting with others in his life. At one point, we find out that Oskar was unsuccessfully tested for Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. All of these elements make him a unique person and someone who must have challenged such an inexperienced actor. However, Horn makes it look easy.

Bullock also has some touching moments, and, in some ways, her part is the most depressing. While her son runs around New York City trying to crack the code, she’s left with nothing except images of her deceased husband.

Hanks is likable, although because of the tragedy that strikes his character, he doesn’t get much screen time.

Von Sydow, playing a mute neighbor of Oskar’s grandmother, is quite good in his scenes. Here’s a man reduced to writing “Yes” on one palm of his hand and “No” on the other. He’s unable to talk, and yet Oskar can’t stop talking. It only makes sense that they would get along.

Daldry, who has created an impressive film career with The Hours, Billy Elliot and The Reader, does let the story get away from him at times. The voiceover doesn’t add much, and a surprise twist that may have worked in the book feels extraneous and farfetched in the movie. Still, with the director’s steady hand, we are able to experience the Big Apple through the eyes of a young boy suffering the most personal form of torment.

There is no talk about the international ramifications of Sept. 11 or the war in Afghanistan. Elected officials are never mentioned, and the focus is not on Osama bin Laden. Instead, we relive that fateful day through the eyes of someone personally attached to the devastation. This makes Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close one of the most difficult films to experience, but also one of the most meaningful.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

  • 2011

  • Directed by Stephen Daldry

  • Written by Eric Roth; based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer

  • Starring Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, Viola Davis and Max von Sydow

  • Running time: 129 minutes

  • Rated PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language

  • Rating: ★★★½

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

One thought on “‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’ is a touching story of how a child deals with grief

  • January 31, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    What was the saying to kept telling john goodman, f*#k…..something


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