If things were easy to find, they wouldn’t be worth finding.
There are two potential hot button issues you need to be aware of going into Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Children with special needs, and the events of 9/11. I have little tolerance for the emotional manipulation and exploitation of either, so my guard was up before the film even started. Adapting Jonathan Safran Foer’s critically divided novel, screenwriter Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and director Stephen Daldry (The Reader) attempt to tell a story of grief from the perspective of someone ill-equipped to even grasp the concept.
Oskar Shell (Thomas Horn) is special child who shares a unique relationship with his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks). Together they have embarked on many adventures, the greatest of which is proving the existence of New York’s lost sixth borough. But before this mystery can be solved, the events of September 11, 2001 transpire, and Thomas is lost in the collapse of the World Trade Center. The Shell family is shattered.
A year later, accidentally breaking a vase while going through his father’s closet, Oskar discovers a key in a small envelope marked “Black.” Thus, a new mystery is born. What was Thomas trying to tell Oskar? What was this a key to, and what treasure would it unlock? Obsessed with finding answers to these questions, Oskar embarks on a futile mission: Comb the streets of New York City, talking with every family with the last name Black, to see if they knew his father, and what possible significance this key held to them. Keep in mind, Oskar is only eleven years old and already in a fragile state. What benefits could this quest provide, and what are the costs if he fails?
Awards season is often awash with emotionally-charged storytelling. Be it biopics of complex historical figures (The Iron Lady), epic romanticized period pieces (War Horse), or intense political conundrums (In the Land of Blood and Honey); Hollywood loves to challenge audiences as the year draws to a close. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close fit right in with its 2011 brethren, each drawing its share of critical recognition. But how much of an impetus behind these films is a story needing to be told, and how much of it is a studio’s need to amass little golden statuettes?
Stephen Daldry’s film already had a strike against it, in that the source material was not well received in its written form. Americans have developed a thick skin when it comes to 9/11, and don’t appreciate having old wounds poked and prodded for no apparent reason. Add to that a young special needs protagonist who’s forced to carry the majority of the narrative, and your film begins with its back against the wall, fighting to prove its worth.
“If the sun were to explode, you wouldn’t even know about it for eight minutes because thats how long it takes for light to travel to us. For eight minutes the world would still be bright and it would still feel warm. It was a year since my dad died and I could feel my eight minutes with him…were running out.”
It takes a unique individual to raise a special needs child. The autistic spectrum is vast, and though Oskar’s particular condition is never fully explained, it’s clear he’s high functioning. Still, Thomas has fully embraced his son’s many challenges and is determined to help him overcome each of them. This commitment is so deeply engrained in Oskar that even after his father’s passing he continues challenging himself. This is the only reason he gets as far as he does.
I make this clear not to give away any aspects of the story, but to prepare you for some truly uncomfortable moments. One of my great fears has long been a loss of mental faculty, and Daldry does an effective job of putting us in that position. Oskar knows he’s damaged but unable to do anything about it, forced to ride out these uncomfortable episodes until they pass…and so are we.
With a mother (Sandra Bullock) who is seemingly broken, and a grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) who cares deeply but is only able to provide moral support, Oskar is forced to undertake this mission on his own. That is, until a mysterious man known only as “The Renter” (Max von Sydow) walks into his life. Intrigued by Oskar’s intense passion and many quirks, “The Renter” agrees to tag along and assist where he can. I say “assist” because this gentleman is a mute who communicates only through the words “yes” and “no” tattooed on the palms of his hands and an ever-present notebook in which he can provide more verbose responses. Together, this odd couple find companionship, a means of working through their respective issues, and an entirely new appreciation for the city of New York and its residents.
For as detailed and immersive as production designer KK Barrett (Being John Malkovich) and cinematographer Chris Menges’ (Notes on a Scandal) stage is — capturing the Big Apple’s humanity in a way that’s rarely been done before — the performances are what drive the picture. Thomas Horn is Oskar; I don’t believe you can separate the two. This isn’t so much an acting role as it is performance art. Daldry simply wound this untrained kid up and let him go. More often than not it works, but the sheer amount of time Horn spends on screen will try your patience. For those who wondered why Max von Sydow was challenging Christopher Plummer for an Oscar, it won’t take more than three minutes for that answer to be revealed. Max has a lifetime of memorable performances under his belt, but this may well be the icing on the cake. For an actor of his age and stature to pull off a Chaplin-esque performance that rivals Charlie Chaplin himself is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close needs to be seen just for this albeit too brief role. Viola Davis (The Help) and Jeffrey Wright (The Ides of March) shine in small supporting turns, as does Sandra Bullock, veteran stage actress Zoe Caldwell, and John Goodman as a combative doorman (a relationship that’s never fully explained). But special credit need be given to Tom Hanks, whose commitment to a role some actors might see as a throwaway informs more of the film than anyone ever could have anticipated.
I’m being careful not to discuss too much of the story, as Eric Roth’s screenplay is a beautifully layered exercise in human observation. Some of the reveals are easily discovered, while others are earned and prove quite surprising. Please understand this is not a casual moviegoing experience. If you choose to undertake Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, you are agreeing to invest two hours of your time and at least another hour of brain power digesting what you have witnessed. You cannot bail on this movie once it starts, no matter how frustrated or annoyed you may become, because the payoff will only come to you in the end. This means having to sit through some languishingly intense emotional sequences and several painfully verbose monologues from Oskar, all of which inform the story as a whole. Daldry is much like painter Bob Ross, in that only the finished canvas tells the tale.
Presented in 2.40:1/1080p high definition widescreen, the fidelity of this Blu-ray transfer is astounding. Having seen a DVD screener well before the home video release, the level of detail only enhances the experience, to the point where you can taste, touch, and smell the city and its people. This is not a glossy, colorful film, but one tinged with sadness in which greens, blues, and browns reflect a troubled mind and heavy heart. I could not find any obvious flaws in the encoding, which means there’s nothing to distract you from what’s happening on screen. The same holds true for the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, a rich soundscape of the city, from the lush interiors of Central Park to the harsh streets of midtown at one o’clock in the morning. The track (and the film) also make tremendous use of an achingly subtle underscore by composer Alexandre Desplat who is quicky overtaking Thomas Newman as my favorite composer. Dolby 5.1 French and Spanish language tracks are available for those who require them, as well as English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The bonus features on this special edition Blu-ray release (a movie-only version is also available from Warner Bros.) are enough to flesh out a film that benefits from discussion.
* Making Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (20 min) — This Daldry-centric featurette finds cast and crew discussing the director, the material, and the process they all went through to achieve the final film.
* Finding Oskar (8 min) — A Kids Jeopardy contestant enters the world of acting and filmmaking, molded by the team who gave us Billy Elliot.
* Ten Years Later (12 min) — Respecting the city, the residents, and the emotional intensity of those who lived through 9/11 at ground zero.
* Dialogues with The Renter (44 min) — A fly-on-the-wall documentary following the great Max von Sydow as he prepares, rehearses, and films his scenes.
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
There are few films that viscerally haunt the dark recesses of my mind — Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, and now Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I’m certainly not placing the film on equal footing with these classic cinematic masterworks, but the elements that do work here evoke similarly raw emotions, ones that can be easily brought to the surface just by thinking about them. This is not an altogether pleasant way to spend two hours, but I firmly believe you will be better for having gone through the experience.