The ads say this is not a 9/11 movie, but it sures seems like it to me. Tom Hanks plays the world’s greatest dad (really, he never gets mad?), a jeweler who enjoys sending his son on “reconnaissance missions” that require maps and clues. They are currently working on finding New York’s missing sixth borough (you would think Hanks wouldn’t lead his kid so astray on geography) when “the worst day” happens, and Hanks is killed in the Towers.
The boy, Oskar, played by Thomas Horn, spends a moody year before he can even go in his father’s closet, which is untouched. He finds a key, and, seeking to keep a connection to his father that is waning, endeavors to find what that key unlocks. A child who was tested for Asperger’s, Horn notes that the name “Black” is written on the outside of the envelope that contains the key. He sets about contacting every person named Black in the five boroughs of New York. It’s a good thing I wasn’t around, because I would have been the asshole that said, “What if they live in Jersey?”
Soon Horn is joined on his expedition by a mysterious lodger in his grandmother’s apartment, an old man (Max von Sydow), who does not speak, but has the words “Yes” and “No” tattooed on the palms of his hand, which is a nifty convenience. Von Sydow is such a good actor that at times I forgot he was mute, as you can read his thoughts in his expressions. Though he is a very fine performer, the character seems to exist only to get Horn over his fear of public transportation and bridges.
As I sit here a few hours later, it’s easy for me to pick apart this movie. For one, what American couple would name their kid Oskar? (this made me think of the main character with the same name in The Tin Drum, which is not who I should have been thinking of). The people Horn meets, most of them kind, seem like a Benetton ad (how many Chinese people people would have the surname Black?) But while I was watching it I was affected, mostly because director Stephen Daldry has managed to convince me that I was inside Oskar’s head, and how overstimulated he could be by events swirling around him.
But do I want to spend two hours in the company of a kid like this? Horn, for his part, does a fine job (I was interested to read he was discovered after winning $30,000 on the Jeopardy kids tournament) but the character is so full of tics (such as carrying a tambourine to calm him down) that it made me edgy. He is also not warm and cuddly–he is extremely cruel to his mother (Sandra Bullock, in one of the better performances I’ve seen her give). The film was based on novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, and perhaps being inside the head of a mildly autistic boy works better on the page–I haven’t read the book, but I did read The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time, which is another book narrated by an autistic person. When you actually have to experience the mania of this child you feel like you’re trapped in a Chuck-E Cheese on a Saturday afternoon.
Daldry is a great craftsman, but as with The Reader, he isn’t a particularly great director when it comes to sympathetic characters. He and his editor, Claire Simpson, have made a technically brilliant film. The opening shots of silhouetted figures falling is unnervingly gripping. However, the score by Alexandre Desplat is incessant and overbearing.
The events of 9/11 will continue to be the stuff of movies, I suppose. I think this film does not make the mistake of treating that event as an excuse for a child to find himself, which would be insulting. I had feared a mawkish film, which we do not get. But there is a kind of near-magic realism that gives that day a fairy-tale quality, which could be offensive to some, but could also be an approach that makes it easier for others to cope. Again, this is all problematic.
My grade for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: B.