Title: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Year: 2011
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Mystery
Play time: 
Director: Stephen Daldry
Screenwriters: Eric Roth
Starring: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock

Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is relentless in the worst way. Every moment, every line of dialogue presses its themes and metaphors with a mulish determination. Each shot is an emotional appeal. Not for a second does the movie breathe; never does a character say or do something not perfectly on all fours with the film’s designs. When he feels too much slack on the rope, Daldry cranks up the musical score, or launches an overwhelmingly emotional montage, or just has his precocious protagonist start yelling. The movie is furiously obsessive, hell-bent. It will wear you down or die trying.

I can construct a theory of why it should be this way. Extremely Loud is, after all, a story of a young boy toward the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum (Thomas Horn), trying desperately to make sense of his father’s death in the September 11th attacks in the only way he knows how: by throwing his entire being into an elaborate, compulsively-formulated plan to search for something he believes his dad (Tom Hanks) meant for him to find. It makes a certain kind of sense that the film would be as meticulous and purposeful as its main character.

But even if this works as a conceit, what we have in execution is unspeakably pushy and obnoxious. It is not enough that young Oskar Schell must canvas a traumatized city with a business card reading “Amateur Entomologist and Pacifist” looking for the lock that fits a mysterious key found in his late father’s closet. He must also tow along with him an old geezer who is (a) mute; (b) wise; and (c) clearly a long-lost relative of some sort. And he must tell his long-suffering mother (Sandra Bullock) that he wishes it was her in that tower. And if all of that is not enough, there are at least three maudlin plot twists, each calibrated for maximum sob extraction. It’s frankly shameless.

The film deserves credit for featuring an autistic character as a bona fide protagonist, rather than a subject of curiosity and pity as in, e.g., The Black Balloon. But I note that Daldry and his screenwriter, Eric Roth, rather cynically turn this to their advantage. Oskar speaks (and narrates the film) in elaborate, verbose declamations, a fact that the screenplay implicitly ascribes to his Asperger’s, but that in practice allows Roth to repeatedly verbalize the film’s themes: how sometimes bad things happen and they don’t make sense no matter how hard you try to figure them out, or how Thomas’s quest is his attempt to cling to his father’s memory. A weird sort of exploitation.

To be clear, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is earnest, and mostly good-hearted, and I found it hard to hate. It moves pretty well, and is too slick to be boring. I certainly did not have the same virulent reaction as Scott Tobias, despite harboring many of the same complaints. But if you want a movie that genuinely grapples with the effect of 9/11 on New Yorkers who lived through it, look elsewhere (perhaps to Spike Lee’s 25th Hour). This is, if you can believe it, maybe the first mainstream example of 9/11 kitsch.

Eugene Novikov

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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