By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
It’s not extremely loud, but it is incredibly close. To our hearts and minds. And it’s dramatically devastating.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a poignant, stimulating drama about the tragic effects and aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, a subject that movies of the previous decade have addressed only occasionally (World Trade Center, United 93), as if it were too soon after our collective trauma to turn our shock and grief into “entertainment.”
But from its arresting opening through its moving conclusion, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close proves either that it has now been a long enough thematic embargo or that with enough creativity, intelligence, and sensitivity applied, it’s much more than just possible to do the subject justice.
British director Stephen Daldry has a perfect record: he has received Oscar nominations as best director for each of his first three efforts in that chair (Billy Elliott, The Hours, The Reader).
Remarkably, he deserves one for this, his fourth, as well.
Based on the best-selling 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close tells its heartbreaking story through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy named Oskar Schell, played by Thomas Horn, whose doting dad, a jeweler played by Tom Hanks, lost his life on that fateful day of a year ago — what Oskar always refers to as “the worst day” — when he was attending a meeting in one of the twin towers.
The troubled, fast-talking protagonist, Oskar, has Asberger’s Syndrome. After his father is taken from him, the earthly connection between them seemingly gone forever, he finds a key and wonders what the lock that it fits would tell him about his father.
Sandra Bullock plays the boy’s mother. She has trouble getting through to her son as each of them goes through their grief process and heals in very different ways.
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So, Oskar undertakes a singular and apparently impossible journey of self-discovery throughout New York City’s five boroughs, using every ounce of his considerable intelligence, stick-to-it-iveness, and resourcefulness to track down and contact anyone who might hold a key to the key.
Of course, he could use a little grownup help. And it comes in the form of his grandmother’s (Zoe Caldwell) mysterious, mute boarder, a Holocaust survivor played by Max Van Sydow, who begins accompanying him on his frequent trips across town.
The time-shifting script by veteran screenwriter Eric Roth (who won an Oscar for Forrest Gump) is an intense father-son drama that proves astonishingly adept at turning elements of the story that would seem to work much better on the page into effectual elements of visual storytelling.
As overwhelmingly sad as the subject matter is, the film’s imprint is not only life-affirming but, almost miraculously, hopeful as well.
And because Daldry doesn’t push too many emotional buttons in the early going, the film’s final reels have an uncanny emotional power.
Hanks is solid and Bullock efficiently effective, as the stars lend their collective screen presence to the film and hover over it even when they’re not on screen, and Von Sydow does wonders with his silent role. Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright also excel as part of the large supporting ensemble.
But it’s the remarkable Horn — who has never acted before and was discovered as a contestant and champion on the kids’ edition of TV’s “Jeopardy” — who carries the film. And he’s a revelation. Rarely is a child performer depended upon for this level of nuance, this much complicated dialogue, this volume of voiceover narration, or this amount of up-close-and-personal screen time. But Horn can toot his own because he’s a champion here, too.
So we’ll search for closure on all 4 stars out of 4 for a heart-wrenching and rewarding 9/11-themed drama about loss, grief, and love. It may not have opened in time to get Oskar’s story in the running for an Oscar, but Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is certainly one of the best films of the past calendar year.