Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)
Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow
Runtime: 130 minutes
My Rating: ★★★
In Short: Effective and interesting, but wears thin after a while
I am not in any way nor have I ever been American, and I don’t know a whole lot about the country, so I’m not going to pretend for a minute I understood and felt complete empathy with Americans following the horrific events of 9/11. It evidently did not affect me in the same way it did the millions of Americans whose lives came to a complete standstill more than a decade ago, but Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in its own often surprisingly subtle ways, made me feel closer than ever to that day (referred to bleakly as “The Worst Day” by the protagonist) than I thought possible. Certainly in my lifetime, my home country of New Zealand has never experienced terrorist attack on such a scale (if any scale at all), so to be so powerfully and unexpectedly moved by a film about the subject was startling.
While this film isn’t as personal and in depth about the events as say, Paul Greengrass’s brilliant United 93, it definitely brought me closer to a disaster using a surprisingly successful tactic: not showing the disaster at all. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is not about 9/11, but the effect it had on people, specifically a slightly autistic young boy whose strong attachment to his father is broken by the events of The Worst Day. Particularly moving in this regard are a series of answering machine messages left by the father while he was stuck in the World Trade Center, which wisely don’t describe the events and chaos in detail, but simply serve as a final reaching out to his wife and son, who sadly weren’t present to hear his words as they were spoken. As I heard these messages, I imagined the emotions that must have run through the listener, knowing that his father was dead and that he missed these final fleeting, precious words, and I was enveloped by a wave of sudden sadness I couldn’t explain, nor did I wish to try to.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is definitely not a great film, and it is only barely a good one, due to moments and emotions evoked by these words and images. As a whole, the film suffers from a multitude of things. The most noticeable is the performance by Thomas Horn, as the young boy Oskar. Don’t get me wrong, his performance is very good and at times surprisingly powerful, but I found following him so quickly for two full hours very overwhelming, and he does have some rather poorly written dialogue including a narration which often suffers from clichés and isn’t anywhere near as effective as it should be.
However, the other acting performances are mostly marvellous, seeming less like supporting roles and more like main ones. Tom Hanks is his typical jolly and fatherly self (come on… who doesn’t want him for a Dad?), and seems always to bring a smile to faces. Sandra Bullock (whom I absolutely despised beyond description in her Oscar-winning performance in The Blind Side) is surprisingly brilliant, giving arguably the film’s best performance in a number of powerful scenes. Though Max von Sydow never says a word (he always has a Swedish accent in my head, thanks of course to his many Bergman movies), he retains an expression many actors would present as stone-faced solemnity, but I see as regret and lonely sadness, the look of a man on the verge of bursting into sobs. I was reminded of his fantastic performance in a few short scenes of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and had a deep urge to seek out more of his movies (The Seventh Seal is beckoning from my shelf, even though I rewatched it only a few weeks ago).
Though the film is slightly overlong, and I felt like von Sydow’s character sort of disappeared into thin air without enough of an explanation, and Thomas Horn’s stubbornness occasionally seems to border on arrogance, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a bearable film, and nowhere near as bad as I expected it to be. It takes time with its material, and though the ending isn’t as satisfactory as it should be (the film does admittedly seem to wander into blank nothingness toward the end), I did feel some closure, and am glad I took the time to watch it. Unlike many recent Hollywood releases, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close managed to elicit an emotional response from me that was not negative, but welcomed. Sure, it’s not perfect, but in a cinematic world where presenting 9/11 consists of showing a plane hitting a building, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close manages to make us all in some way feel the pain of the collision, without for a second attempting to represent it visually. This at least, deserves respect.