Filmmakers over the past decade have had trouble mounting productions based around one of the most dramatic and monumental events of this young century. 9/11 changed the face of our American culture forever but the films that followed that event have struggled to properly put it into any significant historical context. Any film that has tried to tell a story based around it or even mention it as a plot point is met with cries of “too soon” and financial failure.
Filmmakers Oliver Stone and Paul Greengrass were the first mainstream filmmakers to tackle the event head on to somewhat mixed results. Stone’s World Trade Center was a surprisingly straight forward, yet uninspired tribute to those that died at the towers. Greengrass’ United 93 was a harrowing and almost too true to life recreation of what happened on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania; scary and shocking in its precise detail and “you are there” cinematography. Both were financial failures as audiences have spurned any film that has tried to deal with those events or the wars that it spawned, looking for escape rather than confrontation. This is a far cry from back in the 1930s and 40s when Hollywood regularly made films centered on World War II as the war raged on in Europe.
Stephen Daldry’s attempt at dramatizing that horrific day puts it through the naïve, yet innocent perspective of a child. Based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about a child trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense. Rather than dealing with the day head on, Foer’s book and Daldry’s adaptation looks at the aftermath and the emotional devastation that is left in its wake. Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a nine year old boy in New York City with a potential case of Asperger’s who loses his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) in the World Trade Center. In the aftermath of his death and stuck with a mother (played by Sandra Bullock) who just doesn’t understand him the way his father did, Oskar finds a key among his father’s possessions and embarks on a quest to find where it fits.
Daldry attempts to draw the viewer into young Oskar’s quest through his relationship with his father shown in flashbacks that are endearing but unfortunately the whole enterprise is wrecked by a weak performance from young Thomas Horn. The film reminds us throughout about the boy’s mental and social problems but Horn overplays them to a nauseating effect. The film’s script by Eric Roth is cloying and dripping with sentimentality as it is but with gifted performers, such as Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright who provide a couple of great powerhouse scenes toward the film’s end, the film almost works. But young Horn is outpaced by the material and the film becomes unbearable as a result.
That’s not to say that the film’s failings fall on the young boy alone. Daldry never seems to leave well enough alone and every cut and shot seems to be jockeying for a tear rather than earning it through its own narrative. We follow Oskar visiting every person with a last name “Black”, as written on the back of the envelope carrying the key, in New York City and at each stop he must tell his story of his lost father and the mysterious key. And for each visit we are treated to some variation of each New Yorker’s grief and attempt at humoring the boy but at one point it all becomes quite a bit tiresome.
Daldry seems to want to make a film about New York City and its own grief and mourning over what happened that day. The city is still left with scars from that horrible day but rather than telling a story that offers some sort of light at the end of the tunnel or makes some grand thematic point about the way we grieve as a group, Daldry wallows in it. He has made a film that is emblematic of the worst impulses of grief porn. It wafts in front of the viewer’s faces very real pain and heartache and scenes of anguish and does nothing worthwhile with them. We are witness to countless scenes of screaming anguish and tears and more tears with little to break the monotony. Of course you will cry during this movie but that’s only through sheer force of will from the filmmakers.
It’s a slightly disgusting form of manipulation that Daldry displays here because he uses a memory that everyone collectively shares and he puts that memory front and center and we mourn again but says nothing about it. Oskar embarks on his quest to maintain some kind of connection to his father and this ties in nicely in the film’s denouement involving Jeffrey Wright who shares an actually nicely heartfelt scene with young Thomas Horn and as a scene partner seems to tone down some of Horn’s more irritating tendencies more prevalent in the rest of the movie. Scenes involving Max von Sydow, playing a mysterious stranger who helps Oskar on portions of his quest, also gets a few nice moments with Horn and the film actually comes a bit alive when he joins the action but this is only a temporary bit of distraction from the tears.
We are all looking for some kind of connection to not just the people that were lost that day but to the people we were before that day. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, as a film at least, has no interest in these questions about what it takes to get back to some semblance of order and sanity from September 10th. And that’s a real shame because the film felt in such a perfect position to get at the heart of what the city had to go through and where we are as a people ten years on. What we are left with is a cloying muddle of a film that feels complacent in wallowing in stale sentiment.