There’s a lot of things Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close could have been– emotionally manipulative, trite, saccharine, overly sentimental, and cloying to name but a few. In fact, those things kept me away from Extremely Loud for quite some time, until I finally gave in, mainly to be sure I wasn’t unfairly omitting it from my 2011 Top Ten list. Those films should go up in about a week’s time– I still have about 6 films left to catch up with on DVD. And while Extremely Loud didn’t make my list, it’s far better than I imagined, and a testament to the strength of director Stephen Daldry.
In fact, this man really does deserve an Oscar. There’s quite a bit in common between Hugo and Extremely Loud— both feature young male protagonists who have just lost a father on a search for purpose and meaning, and ultimately love and inclusion, represented by a physical journey involving locks and keys. And as fond as I am of Scorsese, and as much as the cinefile in me enjoyed watching him play with the history of cinema and the career of George Melies, I found Extremely Loud to be the far-better directed of the two. That’s a sentiment that will likely be argued by most, as a result of Hugo‘s tight visual style and several problematic elements with Extremely Loud, namely the film’s sentimentality, the presence of Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock and Extremely Loud‘s positioning as Oscar bait, and the questionable sympathy of the film’s lead. But that’s all the more reason to praise Daldry and his accomplishments here.
Billy Elliot, Daldry’s first feature, was a very emotionally resonant, effective, and well-told story about a young British boy who just wanted to dance. It single-handedly gave Jamie Bell a flourishing international career. From there Daldry went on to make The Hours and The Reader, two very difficult films, much like Extremely Loud, that are nevertheless brilliantly-directed. Daldry always gets amazing performances from his actors, and it always seems natural and effortless. Some films feature great performances or ensembles, and while they may be talked about, everything seems a bit overly calculated or self-congratulatory. The performances in Daldry’s films simply feel real and lived in. Yet he has even greater strengths in visual and narrative storytelling. The way he stages a scene usually captures the emotional core of the characters, their struggles, and the environments, on both a textual level and with several layers of subtext. His visual style complements this, but it’s this inherent wisdom regarding life and experience in all of its moral ambiguities and complexities, and the way he’s able to translate this into visceral, raw moments, that puts Daldry at the top of his list of peers. Yet his films are so resistant to mainstream appeal that the level of his talent hasn’t truly been appreciated. Billy Elliot was made as he was still developing as a director, and it didn’t receive a wide release; his three films since then have had restrictive elements preventing huge mainstream appeal. And while I don’t see Daldry going out and chasing the world of Hollywood blockbusters, it would be nice if one of his films connected and resonated with a larger audience.
Despite all of my praise for Daldry, this isn’t a perfect film. The story follows Oskar Schell, a boy who likely has Asperger’s, trying to cope with the loss of his father after 9/11. Asperger’s is a type of autism, and Oskar has extreme difficulty connecting with and communicating with other people. His interests are very particular, and he pursues them obsessively and compulsively and in a very rigid, highly-structured way. His father Thomas, who once had dreams of being a surgeon but became a jeweler after his studies were cut short by family life, demonstrates a singular understanding and patience with Oskar. There are subtle moments where we see the strain of both financial difficulty and the frustrations of his not always successful attempts at reaching Oskar wearing on him, but for the most part Thomas has both the patience and understanding of a saint. To appeal to Oskar’s highly-ordered brain, he’s constantly constructing extremely detailed projects for him, weaving them with myth and story, and turning them into interactive learning experiences that involve getting him out into the world as much as possible. Thomas understands Oskar’s weaknesses and challenges, and he’s forever lovingly guiding him in ways to help socialize him. Of course, when Thomas goes down with the World Trade Center, Oskar’s anchor is taken away from him and he turns inward. The eventual discovery of a hidden key in a vase leads Oskar to create one last reconnaissance expedition to search for a lock and whatever his father may have left him, as well as to give him one last project to pursue to help him process the grief of his father.
There’s a lot of great work from the cast– Max Von Sydow as a mute German who joins Oskar for part of his search, Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright in smaller, supporting roles as two of the people Oskar interacts with during his travels, and Sandra Bullock as Oskar’s grief-paralyzed mother. Sandra Bullock has probably never been better, and her performance here came as a bit of a surprise. This isn’t an actress making a bid for an Oscar, it simply feels honest and real. Tom Hanks’ slight Brooklyn accent is slightly affected and distracting, but otherwise he defines the emotional center of the film in his brief screen time. However, it’s the lead performance of Thomas Horn as Oskar that’s likely to prove difficult for many a moviegoer. Oskar is certainly sympathetic, but he’s also abrasive, combative, selfish, and lacks empathy for others. And while Thomas Horn is a good actor, he’s still young and doesn’t have decades of craft behind him to help balance his performance and make the character more palatable. This is a complicated role, and often times the performance choices combined with the autistic character traits are going to be alienating to an audience.
I haven’t read the book, or anything by Jonathan Safran Foer, but from what I hear it’s very mannered and gimmicky, likely in a way that parallels the highly-ordered internal monologue of the main character. From the way Oskar organizes his projects to the way he’s set up different elements of his room, it’s easy to see how this could have been filmed in a very stylistically-mannered Wes Anderson way. Kudos then to Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth for going one step further and not taking such an easy, short-handed route, but instead to present all of Oskar’s complexities while still maintaining some objectivity and placing them within a more expansive, realistic setting. It doesn’t short-change the character, and in fact helps to earn him some empathy by showing his vulnerable place within a complicated society too complex for his complete understanding or functioning. And it’s an empathy that’s much-needed considering the challenges of Oskar as the central narrative voice.
In the end, Extremely Loud is still a very sentimental film; but for me it’s an honest and well-earned sentimentality. There may also be narrative elements that are too simplistic for some, but I found the way that Daldry balances the constrictive world-view of the main character with emotional truthfulness to be an artfully-achieved balancing act. And there’s simply no arguing the rich complexities of the many directorial choices. For a film that incorporates the tragedy of 9/11, its ultimate aims are small and personal. This isn’t a story about 9/11, it’s simply a story about grief and loss, and the emotional challenges of someone who finds it hard to reach out. On that level, it’s remarkably deep, insightful, and emotionally-rewarding.