A year after Oskar’s father dies in the 9/11 attacks in New York City, he discovers a key hidden among his father’s belongings. With just one clue to go on – the name ‘Black’ – Oskar sets about solving his father’s final mystery. The search leads him across the city, and into the paths of an eclectic assortment of people.
Oskar is withdrawn from the world by nature, and to draw him out of his shell, his father used to send him out to solve mysteries, which were designed to make Oskar talk to as many people as possible. Thomas Horn captures the essence of Oskar well, he is hyper intelligent, hyperactive but socially awkward. It is easy to identify with this character as he combines the child’s sense of wonder with a genuine fear of many things we take for granted in every day life as well as the total confusion and heartbreak that comes with the first experience of death or loss. Oskar’s battle to overcome his fears and grab his last connection with his father is the emotional heart of the film, but it swings from adorable to dangerous as Oskar’s search for information about the key borders on obsession with his father.
The adults of the film support Thomas Horn and do a fine job. The relationship between Oskar and his father is a believable one; here is the only person in the world that Oskar has connected with and he is cruelly snatched from him. Sandra Bullock is the caring but bewildered mother of a precocious and secretive child. Max Von Sydow plays the mysterious man who Oskar’s grandmother has rented a room to. He does not speak through choice, but becomes the sounding board for Oskar and the person he relates to most after the death of his father. Von Sydow doesn’t speak one word throughout the film – this seems to be the year for silent performances – and while this starts off as the reason that Oskar opens up, it begins to lose it’s charm about halfway through the film. The adults are not given a chance to develop their characters fully, so they end up playing one note. Thomas (Tom Hanks) is playful and fun, Linda (Sandra Bullock) is bewildered and lost and The Renter (Max Von Sydow) remains a mystery for most of the film.
The pain and loss of 9/11 underscore the entire film, and it is hard to tell whether this story is an exploration of the grief and loss felt by the city of New York after this event, or whether it is exploiting the collective memory of what Oskar calls ‘the worst day’ for the sake of layering an extra air of melancholy and loss into the film. It seems that the story would have worked just as well without the involvement of 9/11, although some aspects of the story would have had to be reworked.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a well shot film; there are scenes of incredible beauty, and the use of colour is first rate, but the story lets the film down. The eventual solving of the mystery is incredibly anti-climactic, but the audience are then told that the film was not about the discovery but the journey that Oskar made to get there. The inclusion of 9/11 was perhaps a misstep; there is not enough of it in the film for it to be explored fully, so it becomes the backdrop to a small story. The film feels self conscious, in a way, as though aware that this is a ‘performance’ rather than real life. There is one small moment of uncomfortable truth between Horn and Bullock, but it is quickly glossed over and ignored.
In all, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a film that begs the audience to suspend their disbelief a little higher than one normally would for a sentimental film. The audience has to be ready to accept that a message can be found over a year later in the public place in which it was left, and that a mother and son can traipse around after one another in the New York City of 2002 without ever getting into a dangerous situation. Stephen Daldry has coaxed a strong performance from Thomas Horn, it is just a shame that the film disappears into a sea of sentimentalism, melodrama and, ultimately, the inability to let go and grieve for those that are lost.