11 September, 2001 is a day that will forever live in the memories of those who were alive when it happened. The whole world came to mourn the tragic loss of life as various targets around the US were attacked, most notably in New York where the World Trade Centre was destroyed by commandeered planes. From this moment on, security was tightened, peoples sensibilities toward art and culture changed, films had to represent this global shift in zeitgeist. Over 10 years later, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, based on a novel by Jonathon Foer and directed by Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daldry was released.
Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is attending his father Thomas' (Tom Hanks) funeral with his mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) and he begins to recall with voiceover, the events that lead him to come to this moment. He had a very strong relationship with his father, who used to send him on scavenger hunts to help him overcome his fears and to keep his precocious, borderline autistic mind busy with puzzles and mysteries.
On September 11th, 2001, Thomas is sent home from school where he finds voicemails left from his father from within one of the World Trade Centre towers. A year later, while investigating his fathers closet, he accidentally breaks a blue vase that contains a key in an envelope with the word 'Black' written on it. Assuming this to be a clue to a scavenger hunt, Oskar begins to track down everyone in New York with the surname 'Black' in order to solve the puzzle and find the message left to him by his deceased father.
The 9/11 tragedy is a very tricky topic to deal with effectively in film. Play it too raw and risk offending audiences for no reason other than a general sense of mean bitterness, and play it to sentimentally and risk becoming too schmaltzy and saccharine. For a narrative like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Stephen Daldry is, on paper, the perfect choice. His deft handling of uplifting hope in rather sullen and downbeat surroundings in Billy Elliot suggest that he would not walk the sentimental path when dealing with 9/11. And in the most part this is true. However, like any person trying to deal with this particular subject matter, the obvious chance to tug at the heart strings is too much for him to resist leading to some melodramatic and over-the-top scenes of grief.
Luckily the cast he has assembled is pitch-perfect in almost all regards. Tom Hanks is the ghost, whose boyish, exuberant Thomas haunts every scene, while newcomer Thomas Horn bravely plays Oskar with a level of risk, prone as he is to fits of self-abuse and general lies and rude behaviour. It's a convincing portrayal of someone who has lost the most important person in their life. Bullock bookends Horn's performance as the less genial 'other parent' who is left to try and pick up the pieces after Thomas' death and appears, on the face of it, to struggle with her failing relationship with her son.
Add to these leads a supporting cast including Viola Davis, John Goodman and an astonishing mute turn by Max Von Sydow and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close grips and engages the audience throughout. It walks the line between sentimental mush and moving, heart-breaking melodrama very carefully, and despite an occasional slip from director Daldry, ultimately is a satisfying and interesting story.
Rating: * * * *