Not just a 9/11 flick

To say that “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is about 9/11 is akin to saying that Moby-Dick is about a whale. Yes, the attack on the Twin Towers is an essential part of the story, but it is used as a metaphor, not as a plotline. The attack provides a setting and a backdrop for exploring the universal issues of grief and crisis, and of family relationships. This film is about fathers and sons, and about mothers, too. It is about trying to make sense out of something that is essentially senseless.

Death is always cataclysmic. It always feels like two giant towers collapsing. When one person dies, another disintegrates. That’s the larger point of this film.

Many elements of the movie just don’t seem to make sense — initially. The central figure, 9-year-old Oskar (Thomas Horn), simply isn’t reacting properly. When he returns home from school on the morning the Towers come down, he’s too flippant with the doorman, and too calm when he enters his apartment. The doorman is flippant in return. I was in New York that day. I know what it was like. And it wasn’t like this — calm and normal, as though nothing had happened at all.

Before long, however, I realized that this was the other point of the film. It challenges our ideas of what “normal” means. And “proper.” And “making sense.” The film’s series of mistakes isn’t really a mistake. It is a deliberate means of conveying an idea: life doesn’t make sense, but we have to try to make sense of it anyway.

To make this point, director Stephen Daldry uses a precocious young boy as his central figure. Oskar has a remarkably close relationship with his father (Tom Hanks), who encourages his young son’s imagination with games of discovery and “expeditions.” Oskar has “something like Asperger’s syndrome,” which gives him tremendous focus and memory. It also explains his odd reactions in the first half-hour of the film. His condition provides not only a skewed point of view, but a metaphor.

Grief, we come to realize, does not have to be public to be cataclysmic.

The film’s title is about Oskar’s reaction to sensory stimulation, not to the planes flying into the Towers. Oskar has extraordinary intelligence, but struggles to make sense of ordinary things, like sidewalk lines and answering machines. Similarly, we struggle to make sense of the crises that happen in our lives. Death is an “ordinary” thing. It happens every day. But when it happens to someone we know and love, it isn’t ordinary at all. And it does not make sense.

When Oskar finds a key inside a vase in his father’s closet, he is convinced that it will lead him to something profound that his father left for him. With his unusual focus and quirky intelligence he devises a plan and sets out on a journey that will take him over the boroughs of New York, searching for a message from his father. He knows it will be nearly impossible, but he says, “If things were easy to find, they wouldn’t be worth finding.”

Along the way Oskar meets dozens of New Yorkers. Many of them have experienced a profound loss. Their losses are not as public or as shared as the losses experienced at the Towers that day, but they are felt just as deeply. Grief, we come to realize, does not have to be public to be cataclysmic.

Early trailers focused on the scenes that include Tom Hanks, a multiple Oscar winner and box-office draw. This makes good marketing sense, even though Hanks is seldom on screen. But after the Oscars were announced last week and Max von Sydow was nominated for best supporting actor, I noticed that the trailers suddenly changed and von Sydow became their new central figure.

That makes good business sense too, and even better artistic sense. Von Sydow plays a renter who lives in an apartment across from Oskar’s building. Known simply as The Renter, he has experienced a trauma that prevents him from speaking, but not from communicating. Von Sydow is simply brilliant in the role. His expressions transcend the need for words.

As Oskar’s mother, Sandra Bullock also demonstrates a wide range of emotions, from numbness to horror to sadness to joy. Yes, even joy, amid the loss. Her grief is almost too painful to watch as she realizes that her husband is doomed, yet she never steps into the realm of melodrama. She manages to stay authentic and vulnerable in every scene.

I wish the same could be said for Thomas Horn as Oskar. He speaks precociously enough, and his moment of cathartic crisis is believably powerful. But he does not portray Asperger’s (or the condition that is “like Asperger’s”) well. He has the actions down, but something is missing. Or, more to the point, something almost imperceptible is not missing from the look on his face. It keeps the film from quite making sense . . . but that seems to be the point too, doesn’t it?

I wasn’t planning to see “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” I really wasn’t ready to see a schmaltzy, melodramatic movie about the day the Twin Towers were attacked, and that’s exactly what the early trailers led me to believe “Extremely Loud” would be. But when it was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, I felt an obligation to review it, even if just to say, “What was the Academy thinking?”

Having seen it now, I have to admit: the Academy was right. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is another of this season’s artistic gems. I don’t think it deserves the Oscar, but it certainly does deserve the recognition of an Oscar nod.

Editor’s Note: Review of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” directed by Stephen Daldry. Paramount, 2011, 129 minutes.

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