A boy loses his father on 9/11 and sets out on a quest
Stephen Daldry directed Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader, all films about young men who lose someone important to them and go about filling that void as the music on the soundtrack swells.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is in many ways typical Daldry: rueful youth, literary source, insistent score. In one important way, the filmmaker's adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel about an 11-year-old who loses his father on 9/11 departs from the usual template.
Although the preteen Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) successfully internalizes the adventurous spirit of his late father (Tom Hanks as a man who organizes expeditions to draw out his lonely son), the youth is less successful at communicating with others. This is not a movie about Oskar's compensating for loss. It is a film, a very moving one, about how he negotiates peace with tragedy. It is a film about how he learns that secrets don't protect him, but come between him and those he loves.
Told almost entirely from Oskar's perspective, Extremely Close operates on a higher level of emotional urgency than Daldry's previous films. This said, it is not for moviegoers who hold that heartstring-plucking is a betrayal of the contract between director and audience.
Although he follows the general outlines of Foer's novel, screenwriter Eric Roth elides, telescopes, or outright eliminates many of its events. As with his screenplay for Forrest Gump, Roth conceives Oskar as a witness and symbol of an era. Oskar, who is on the autism spectrum, is less passive than Forrest.
Oskar's father gave him the tools to solve mysteries, for example, the location of Manhattan's mysterious sixth borough. Oskar uses these tools of organization and deductive reasoning to solve the mystery behind the key in the peacock-blue vase that his father placed in the closet. In so doing, this unchaperoned youth (whose mother, played by Sandra Bullock, always seems to be sobbing in the next room) travels the five boroughs. In his eccentric encounters with disconnected New Yorkers, most of whom open their doors and hearts to the boy rendered fatherless on 9/11, Oskar connects with the disparate and the downcast. His laser-beam concentration and the warm, sunlight-bathed cinematography of Chris Menges have the combined effect of mending the frayed urbanites who, in turn, calm the intense boy.
(Horn, a nonprofessional discovered by Daldry while a contestant on Teen Jeopardy, doesn't have a lot of affect. What would otherwise be a performance deficit works within the context of the film because of Oskar's suggested autism.)
Oskar has a pretty big secret. As it happens, so does everyone around him, including his mother, his paternal grandmother (Zoe Caldwell), and the mute gentleman (Max von Sydow) who rents a room from her. From grandmother to mother to Oskar, the secrets function like shells that protect each of them from further hurt but also as prisons that prevent them from seeing and touching one another. As the film pries open each shell, Oskar moves closer to family and community.
In supporting roles, Bullock and Hanks deliver performances that are low-key and perfectly scaled. Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright are, likewise, excellent as a couple Oskar meets on his reconnaissance expedition.
Daldry's movie opens with bits of detritus and particulate matter falling from the Twin Towers. It ends by putting these bits and particles back together in a meaningful way.
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