Extremely Loud & Incredible Close became a double-surprise Oscar nominee yesterday, snatching Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Max von Sydow) slots. Something told me this 9/11 drama (please don’t let that become a real genre) would gain enough support to make the Best Picture list. That’s why I drove to the local multiplex on Monday morning and bought my matinee ticket to the film.Almost 48 hours later, I’m still struggling to react to the picture. There are moments in this film that are so powerful, so raw, so beautiful, so expertly executed that I wanted to stand up on my seat and start applauding. Other moments are so manipulative, or lifeless, or overwrought, or melodramatic, or poorly conceived that I wanted to walk out of the theater. Yet I stayed for the whole film, hoping for the next true moment to hit the screen.
To say Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is polarizing is an understatement. Metacritic puts the film at 46/100, with a high score of 90 and a low score of 0. 8 critics respond enthusiastically (higher than 70/100); 7 critics respond with scathing reviews (lower than 30/100). The remaining 25 are as confused by this bizarre film as I am.
The reason I was hesitant to see Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was the subject matter. It’s the big 9/11 drama about the boy who lost his father in the World Trade Center. Perhaps the most confusing part of the entire film for me is how deftly director Stephen Daldry handles the most sensitive content of the film.
The film is not obsessed with the details of September 11. September 11 is the background and a recurring motif. This story, adapted from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, cannot be divorced from the terrorist act. However, the film does not dwell on it.
What Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close does well is make the audience realize that their response to the attacks on the Twin Towers is not a unique experience. If you were absolutely gutted by the attack, lost a loved one in the attack, feared for your life because of the attack, became completely overwhelmed by the ubiquitous coverage of the attack, you aren’t alone. The surviving members of the family–the mother, the wife, and the son–cannot escape reminders of what they lost. It’s grief at a hyperactive level and it’s painful to watch.However, these scenes are not the driving force of the film. The son, Oskar Shell (an amazing young performance from Thomas Horn), is. Oskar has an undiagnosed mental health issue. He was tested for Aspergerber’s, but the results were inconclusive. What we do know is that his father used to send him on explorations that forced him to interact with people. Talking to anyone gives him severe anxiety and his father was largely his coping mechanism.
Now, a year after his father’s death, he retreats into his neuroses. He can no longer go in an elevator. He struggles with any form of public transportation. He feels safest when he climbs into a large cupboard in his bedroom that he turned into a shrine for his father.
Oskar becomes convinced his father set up one last expedition for him before his death. He finds a key hidden in a vase that he insists on finding the lock for. This mission takes him all over NYC, forcing him to interact with complete strangers who have no idea why this bright and awkward little boy is asking them about a key.
The problem with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is that the scope of the film–meeting hundreds of strangers in NYC, each with their own story to tell about 9/11–results in very manipulative plot devices. One of these is the entire character of Academy Award nominee Max von Sydow. He plays the voluntarily mute tenant in Oskar’s grandmother’s apartment. His entire role is to force Oskar out of his comfort zone to speed up his expedition. He writes little notes that push Oskar to do different things and he acts as a sounding board for Oskar’s inner monologue.I cannot speak for how characters like the Renter work in Foer’s novel as I haven’t read it. I can say they feel empty, dull, and decidedly uncinematic onscreen. It’s like having a little fairy flying around the map in an RPG/adventure game, telling you exactly where to go and what you need to know.
I’d call these characters foils if they had any more development beyond plot devices and (inevitably) a twist that feels as fake as can be. The only good thing that can be said about these plot device characters is that they do not control the entire film. As soon as the camera is back on Oskar and his family, the whole thing works better.
There is a recurring image of 9/11 that can be a trigger for some people. Oskar becomes obsessed with the image of a man falling from the WTC. Actually, as soon as the film starts, you see a pair of arms and a pair of legs flailing in slow motion over a light blue background. It’s a startling opening image and it’s one that repeats again and again in more detail throughout the film. This is the kind of choice that makes it so hard for me to process the film. Does the image work? Yes. But is it necessary to show it like that, over and over, to tell this story? I don’t know.
That’s my problem with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I don’t know why this is a film. When it works, it’s powerful, thoughtful, and provocative. When it doesn’t, it’s among the worst offenders of bad screenwriting and Hollywood cliches. How do you reconcile such a wild variance in quality in a film? Do you ignore the bad to praise the good? Do you dwell on the bad until you can’t stand the thought of it?
I don’t know. You just keep working through it until you accept the film for what it is or isn’t.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.