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Non-Review Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Stephen Daldry’s latest film, and surprise Best Picture nominee, looks lovely. It opens with a credit sequence that see Tom Hanks falling through the air like an even more stylish version of the Mad Men opening credits. The blue background is just the right shade, the picture is crisp, the focus is tight. Of course, that beautifully illustrative opening sequence exposes the primary flaw with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Some things just aren’t meant to look pretty, and some events can’t be wrapped up inside a feel-good blanket with a tidy ribbon on the outside.

Not quite picture perfect...

It spoils nothing to disclose that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close explores the aftermath of September 11th on one New York family, and on New York itself – which the movie suggests is itself one big family. The movie makes no secret of that, taking every opportunity to remind the audience. Oskar, who lost his father in the attacks, refers to it as “the worst day.” The answering machine he uses to keep his father’s last voice mails is sure announce the date in front of each message.

That day was a powerful one, one with tremendous impact even overseas. I remember where I was when I heard the news, despite living almost half the world away. Even a decade after those fateful events, they cast a pretty long shadow, and they deserve to be handled with a huge amount of tact and respect. Much like he did with the Holocaust in The Reader, Daldry seems intent to use the events for cheap pathos, wrangling tears from an audience who know they are being manipulated. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close does lack the somewhat distasteful subtext of The Reader, in that it doesn’t dare to apply any revisionist logic to the events, but it feels just as stilted.

Oskar bait...

The idea, clearly, is that sometimes you can’t make sense of what happens in life. It’s a sentiment that is easy to relate to, even if it does feel a rather superficial reading of events. It’s very rare that we don’t know why horrible acts like this happen. We know the motivations of the people involved. We know why the target was chosen. As difficult as it might be for us to accept that reasoning, it does exist and it can be understood. Daldry’s film refuses to engage with loss on that level, reducing an event of untold emotional complexity to an easy and obvious question, using that question as emotional leverage to manipulate the audience.

The New York City presented in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is unlike any metropolis on the face of the planet. Oskar is given “reconnaissance expeditions by his father, tasked to investigate particular events or places. Oskar is a unique little kid, one who may or may not have Aspergers Syndrome. He was tested. “The results were inconclusive,” he tells us. His father, played by Tom Hanks, helps young Oskar relate to the world by giving him tasks to accomplish – often tasks that require interaction with the people inhabiting the city.

The mother of all losses...

It’s clear, early on, that both Oskar’s mother and father work. They can’t be around all the time to supervise his activities. Even when they do supervise him, they are often very far removed. Towards the end of the film, he asks one of his parents whether they ever worried about him, giving voice to something that had been bugging me from the start. I wouldn’t send a kid out alone to wander the streets of a small rural town, prying into people’s personal lives – and yet they let Oskar roam freely through one of the most densely-populated cities on the face of the planet.

Of course, they can do this because they seem to live in a rather wonderful alternate universe. Oskar pries into the final task left to him by his father, trying to find meaning, and ends up with a list of hundreds of people to visit. Of those, it seems that the vast majority of them were willing to let a complete stranger into their lives, only a handful were not home, and one refused to open the door to a stranger – and is painted as a horrible human being. These hundreds of people living various lives just open their arms to Oskar and let him poke around in their personal and private lives. Of course Oskar’s parents have no real problem with the kid wandering around that city. It seems like Disneyland might have to relinquish it’s boast of being “the happiest place on Earth.” Daldry’s New York has clear claim to that title.

Carrying on regardless...

This sounds very sweet, and it is. It’s very cutesy and more than a little cloying. As if to offset the sweetness of the set-up and the story, the script tries to give the character of Oskar a bit of an “edge”, in what seems to be a calculated attempt to “balance” out the story. However, it doesn’t help soften the sweetness, and instead creates a surreal and unsettling dichotomy – where Oskar is exceptionally blunt and rude, while everything else is incredibly sweet. He insults the pleasant doorman who works in his hotel building. He berates an elderly gentleman who accompanies him for not being able to keep up. In some of the most unsettling scenes, he engages in self-harm, which his family must know about – yet no one attempts to get him professional help.

None of this is to suggest that Thomas Horn doesn’t give a good performance as Oskar. He is very good, even if the material is a little off. In fact, Horn has great chemistry with “the renter”, a silent elderly gentleman who eventually agrees to accompany him on the mission. Max Von Sydow earned an Oscar nomination for his work here, and I think it’s well deserved. Despite not sharing a word with young Oskar, the two work together quite well. Indeed, I would love to watch a television show where Oskar and “the renter” team up to investigate great existential mysteries together. They make for a whimsical combination. And that is precisely the problem with the pair in this particular film.

Bathos...

Some things are not supposed to be whimsical. The sight of Tom Hanks falling from the World Trade Centre should not look beautiful. Self-harm is not a coping mechanism that should be allowed to work itself out with patience and understanding. Loss is never this polished, this cold and this detached. We might hope that something beautiful might eventually come from so much human suffering, but the process of mourning isn’t a celebration or an adventure. The movie actually uses the collapse of the tower as a moment of dramatic suspense – with a phone call cut off as the building collapses, rather than the line cutting off beforehand due to bandwidth issues or the collapse happening while Tom Hanks’ character is off the phone. It feels cynical and coy.

All great movies manipulate us. After all, how else could they get us to feel such intense emotions in so confined a time period with characters we hardly know? The issue here is execution. Daldry’s manipulations are shallow, and they draw attention to themselves. The movie looks and sounds lovely, but that just exposes the fact that there’s nothing underneath.

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3 Responses

  1. More irritating than touching, healing or any of the positive things one would guess such a story and cast would produce. This was just a totally manipulative film that tries so hard to be emotional that it almost strains itself and its leading “actor”, Thomas Horn who is probably one of the most annoying kids I have seen on-screen in awhile. Good review Darren.

  2. This affected me quite deeply. I was an off child and I found myself identifying deeply with Oskar.

  3. Okay – typing gremlins are at word – I meant to write “odd” child. Although my imagination is now pondering what an “off” child might be? Too adult? Off kilter? Typo or Freudian slip? I will never know the answer! Still, I warmed to the film more than you did.

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