...shining light on the media, one review at a time
For many people, the events of 9/11 are a tragedy in United States history—sad, but not so relevant to those far away, safely unharmed, especially now that so many years have passed. For thousands of others, 9/11 is not just an unfortunate thing that happened to someone else, but is a day that will stand as the most pivotal of their lives—a day that changed them forever.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the tale of one such person—a young boy whose life is transformed and nearly destroyed by the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Yet through this one story, many more stories are exposed, resulting in a meaningful exploration of the human experience, as well as the compassion, heartache, and joy that serves as a connection between people. With artistic beauty and a compelling story that is unblemished by any extensive negative content, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has the power to change how viewers see 9/11 and life itself.
The devastating acts that took place on 9/11 were a shock and difficult for most people to handle, especially those effected by personal loss. But few would experience the events of that fateful day like Oskar Schell. This nine-year-old boy, who once was tested for Asperger’s disease with inconclusive results, is unusually bright, but also has challenges that often seem to accompany such genius.
Oskar becomes “panicky,” as he calls it, around many daily objects and situations that most people barely even notice; trains, bridges, subways, tall buildings…all these and more spark fear in his young heart. Basically, he can’t handle anything he identifies as “not safe,” whether the danger is real or imagined.
The danger to his father, caught in the World Trade Center on 9/11, is real, and the shock of his father’s death sends Oskar reeling. Always unique, Oskar doesn’t cry or throw a tantrum like another child might. Rather, he disappears inside himself and becomes obsessed with finding a way to cling to his father beyond his death.
When Oskar’s father was alive, the two were the best of friends and among their favorite activities were scavenger hunts they called “reconnaissance expeditions.” Oskar’s father would prepare clues and set the goal of what to find. Oskar’s job was to search (using his accelerate intelligence) until he found what he had set out to discover and, through that discovery, make sense of all the clues and the mystery.
In his father’s departure, Oskar comes up against the greatest mystery of his life. When Oskar accidentally finds a key in his father’s belongings, the boy becomes convinced that finding what the key opens is another reconnaissance expedition that will keep Oskar connected to his father, perhaps forever. If Oskar can find the answer to the key, maybe he can somehow make sense of his father’s death.
Having a highly gifted, free-thinking child as the viewpoint character of a film often creates a singular opportunity to be especially artistic and creative, and director Stephen Daldry takes advantage of that opening. The cinematography and storytelling of Extremely Loud features compelling images, symbolism, and thematic depth that enable the audience to understand and experience the unusual thought-process of Oskar. Seeing the world through Oskar’s eyes, however, is not overemphasized in this film, as viewers are also given a certain amount of objective distance at times. Thus, a balance is created that prevents the audience from being alienated by an overdose of Oskar’s eccentricities while allowing viewers insight into the boy’s character and the people who interact with him.
This delicate handling of Oskar’s story is representative of the overall strength of the film’s screenplay. The script is complex beyond the norm with a realism that is at once simple and brilliant. Each supporting character bursts with evidence of untold story, but they never distract or tempt one away from the central focus of Oskar and his family. Unlike other films that have compelling people, there is no doubt here that, despite fascinating and authentically rounded characters surrounding him, Oskar’s story is the one that should be told.
In the telling of that tale, this film manages to weave in touches of humor (a real challenge with a topic this heavy), but mostly aims at exploring the struggle for survival and healing in the midst of grief and horror. The unexpected treasure of this film is that it ends up offering a good deal of truth and legitimate hope for such circumstances.
Perhaps greatest among these means of hope is the parental love that serves as the core, lifeline, and safety net for Oskar. When his father is alive, Oskar’s greatest joy is the relationship they share, and his passion is for pleasing his father in everything. With his dad’s death, Oskar loses not only a father, but his best friend, champion, and reason for living. For Oskar’s father, the boy believes, is the only one who can understand the peculiar way that Oskar thinks—the person that he is.
Oskar’s mother, Linda, has never connected with Oskar like his dad did, and Oskar pushes her farther away after, as Oskar terms it, “the worst day.” [SPOILER WARNING] In an emotionally moving moment of the story, however, viewers discover that Linda, despite appearances to the contrary, is a dedicated mother who ends up winning her son with her unfailing love and support.
This demonstration of familial love in action is reinforced by being multigenerational, as Oskar’s grandparents play a role in helping Oskar through the trauma. Such compassion abounds in the film’s New York community, as well, with many of the perfect strangers who Oskar meets during his quest with the key showing him sympathy, hospitality, and a desire to help him in whatever ways they can. Marriage is also positively portrayed in this film through the close relationship between Oskar’s parents and the devastation that another character’s divorce causes.
Thanks to Oskar’s paralyzed reaction to many (often imagined) dangers of the world, the importance of facing one’s fears becomes another theme that is stressed throughout the movie. With the backdrop of the World Trade Center attack, this message of courage in the presence of such potential dangers is both highly fitting and of great impact.
Because of the mature topics addressed, as well as some content issues, Extremely Loud would be an inappropriate choice for most children. [SPOILER WARNING] During his intense grief and struggle to make sense of his father’s death, Oskar engages in a mild form of self-mutilation through pinching himself all over, hard enough to leave bruises. Though there is no blood or explicit violence in the film, Oskar often envisions his father plummeting from the skyscraper and finds a photo of a man falling in that way.
[SPOILER WARNING] Other problems include an encounter Oskar has with a transvestite, who is nice, but leaves Oskar to question whether the man is actually a man or a woman and if he would therefore have male or female genitalia. Oskar also begins a habit of lying to ease his search for the key’s purpose. He keeps track of the number of lies he tells, which suggests this is a new behavior for Oskar that he’s aware isn’t right, but the lies are never punished or frowned-upon by adults, even when discovered (and Oskar racks the number up to at least 64). In addition, Oskar is frequently disrespectful to adults, including his mother, other family, and mere acquaintances.
Some of this disrespect takes the form of Oskar’s own invention of “almost” swear words, where he includes the actual foul word or something that sounds like it in a longer, made-up word or series of words. Fortunately, Oskar doesn’t flaunt this particular behavior too often. Still, a few actual offensive words make it into the film, including a couple profanities.
In such a long movie, these problematic incidents needn’t be of great concern for older audiences, especially in the face of the numerous redeeming qualities Extremely Loud offers. Among them is the emphasis to see beyond one’s own struggles to acknowledge that everyone has troubles—everyone has a story.
This message emerges with particular strength thanks to the impressive performances given by the well-casted actors. Young Thomas Horn as Oskar is arguably the best casting choice of the film, because of his ability to naturally fit the unusual character. The strongest performances come from some of the smallest roles, with Viola Davis ensuring that her limited screen time is the highlight and among the most memorable moments of the movie. Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock as Oskar’s parents also deliver in their pivotal roles.
Part of the struggle for many people after 9/11 was how to keep living without being paralyzed, as Oskar often is by little things. This film offers a new perspective on such fears, allowing one to more easily perceive how debilitating they can be and the importance of making the choice to act, proceed, and do what needs to be done despite those fears. More importantly, Extremely Loud communicates the importance of love, compassionate kindness, and family—showing that with the help of these elements, one can survive, move on, and find a way to go on living despite tragedy.
Christians watching this movie will notice that an essential factor is missing—God. Only through His love and strength will Oskar, or any victim of suffering, find lasting healing and an infallible hope. Being raised with a knowledge of God’s sovereignty and grace could have spared Oskar much pain and confusion. But, Extremely Loud takes a step in the right direction by pointing viewers to the love that God’s creation of relationships and families demonstrate when they work as they were intended.
As a result, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has the potential to speak loudly to your mind and get close to your heart like few other films.
Check out these similar titles:
Searching for Bobby Fischer (Mirage Entertainment, 1993)
The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (Walden Media, 2007)
Ellen Foster (Hallmark Hall of Fame, 1997)