I’ve been purposefully avoiding all reviews and reports on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot), allowing myself to be guided into the cinema instead by a powerful and emotive trailer and a cast that cannot be ignored – Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, John Goodman. And yet, this talented and charismatic bunch is there to support an unknown young actor, Thomas Horn, who may well tear your heart time after time after time. The fact that you know that the film sets out to do just that to you, to make you just about as vulnerable as you can be in a cinema seat, doesn’t make Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close any less powerful or intense.
Oskar Schell, a 9-year-old boy who has been inconclusively tested for Asperger Syndrome and carries a tambourine wherever he goes to calm himself, is obsessed with finding the lock that fits a key he has found in a vase in his father’s closet. This is the first time he has been in the closet since ‘the worst day’ a year ago, the day that Thomas Schell, Oskar’s father, was literally lost in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Oskar’s father (Tom Hanks) was an extraordinary dad who never talked to Oskar as if he were a child but set him a series of quests or expeditions, ostensibly to discover New York City’s legendary lost sixth borough but with the ulterior purpose of making the withdrawn Oskar talk to people and claim his environment.
The key is found in an envelope with ‘Black’ written on it and so Oskar sets out to locate and talk to everyone in the city with the surname Black. As he searches for the lock, desperately trying to keep his dad close, he is exposed to the stories of everyone he meets, including his grandmother’s silent lodger – The Renter (Max von Sydow) – who has his own secrets but almost in spite of himself starts to come along with Oskar on his quest. Meanwhile, Oskar’s mother (Sandra Bullock) has to deal with all of it.
It is true that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close could have been extremely depressing and incredibly morbid. The opening distressing images do little to dispel this fear and there are other moments of such extreme intensity of grief, pain and hopelessness that were so difficult to watch, at least with dry eyes. But this is also a film about hope, loving families, kindness, exciting adventures and futures. The boy’s isolation, anger and sadness draws (almost) everyone he touches to him and as the film progresses a spider’s web of networks and connections forms across this great and damaged city of New York.
New York City itself is as much a character in EL&IC as Thomas Schell – both shape young Oskar and both give him the support he needs, even though it has left him in such a state that he cannot cope with watching people who stare upwards, and has given him a fear of planes, lifts, transportation, tears and much, much more. Oskar Schell fixes people. His relationship with The Renter (Max von Sydow) is particularly touching and, despite it all, humorous.
Thomas Horn is superb and although his character is designed to extract the greatest possible emotion from us it’s difficult not to fall for him. Sandra Bullock is almost unrecognisable and quiet. It is a very moving performance. But how I loved Tom Hanks as Thomas Schell, a man who knows how to make life the adventure it can be. After watching EL&IC I had this ridiculous need to watch another Tom Hanks movie just to know he was all right! This might be a good time to repost this link…
It’s quite possible that, as with most films, you need to be in the right frame of mind for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close but I would argue that you’ll gain more than you lose if you give in to it.