Thursday, June 21, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

As with the holocaust, films concerning the terrorist attacks of 9/11 should not be taken lightly, even if indirectly linked to the event. Stephen Daldry has made a film that has a lot to say, almost too much, ties up neatly at the end, almost too neatly, but definitely won't be taken lightly. A child's uniqueness, the near-obsessive way he deals with his father's death, and overall quest to make sense of the tragedy are half of this story; the actual tragedy itself plays second chair to the former(s) for most of the film, but through news reports and frantic phone calls, America is transported right back to that day, the worst day as it's often referred to, and even a decade later, not all of us are ready. 
Thomas Horn, in an epic breakthrough performance, plays Oskar Schell, an eleven-year-old boy whose life was turned upside down by the events of 9/11. His father (Tom Hanks) who is portrayed as he appears to Oskar with nothing short of demi-god status and larger than life, is killed in the collapse of one of the towers. While searching for pieces of his father in his closet some time later, Oskar comes across a small envelope labeled, "Black," which inside holds a key. As Oskar clings to the key as a link to his father which may unlock something, anything, that might bring the two together again, the film shows just how dedicated Oskar is to organizing his mission, hinting at his maybe-Asperger's Syndrome and alluding to New York's experience the morning of the terrorist attacks here and there. Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, Max von Sydow, and John Goodman all shine in interesting supporting roles, but are mostly overtaken by the bigger issues of Oskar's feelings, experiences, and elaborate system to (symbolically) get his father back.

The film, though competently created, suffers from taking one main issue (Oskar's search for his father/remembrance of him) and branching it out into several other secondary ones that while seeming adequately interesting and relevant, really just eat up the clock, or serve to make Oskar's screen time feel overly bloated. The renter across the street. The Blacks in Brooklyn (Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright). The numerous stories of the people Oskar encounters. At 129 minutes, the film definitely could have been slimmed down some, but instead each secondary issue is kept and ultimately tied up a little too neatly in the end. Where neatness is concerned, (and this might be where most other critics' beef with the film really lies)---just as Oskar's mother (Bullock) explains that one cannot make sense of 9/11, one also shouldn't try to illustrate it, organize it, or simplify it into a kitschy little scrapbook or collection of objects, which ultimately ends up happening here. 

The strongest moments then become the ones where the film steps outside that neatness and structure and allows unchecked emotion----Oskar's physical collapse as the first tower also falls; the mysterious quality of the renter; Oskar's breakdown that begins on the streets of Manhattan and continues in his mother's arms. Since we've been a little distanced from Oskar as a character, not just because he's slightly anxious or socially awkward but also because of a somewhat stiff and theater-esque speaking voice with which the narrative is explained, (which is not a criticism toward the actor but the director) these unrehearsed-feeling, true moments become crucial in our becoming invested. Like everyone else in the film, we'd like to get closer to Oskar Schell, and like him, we yearn for a catharsis that isn't possible and that no film, no story, will ever give us.