Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: A Film of Tragedy and Self-Discovery

André Bazin – an influential film critic and theorist of the 1940s and ’50s – reflected on film’s relation to life. What Bazin loved about film over any other medium was its ability to produce, to the best of its creators’ abilities, moments of reality. He expressed the importance of communicating a character’s objective reality, focusing on scenarios that indicated the individual’s experience. The mise-en-scène (the arrangement of characters and props in a shot, and the aesthetic enhancement of lighting, costume, and décor) of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close reflects the objective reality of its narrator, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn). Although Oskar’s adventure through New York City is aided by his mother (Sandra Bullock) and grandfather (Max von Sydow), his quest to unearth a mysterious part of his deceased father’s life (Tom Hanks) is the viewpoint that eventually consumes the audience.

Director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot (2000), The Hours (2002), The Reader (2008)) creates a picturesque New York City – a city that is inherently changed by the World Trade Center attacks. The unique landscape of New York’s five boroughs is expertly filmed, encompassing the almost separate worlds between downtown and its seaside borders. The director of photography, Chris Menges, refines Oskar’s sometimes chaotic street view with expansive panoramic crane shots. This multifaceted setting features specific characters of importance to Oskar.

The discovery of a key in his father’s closet (which is contained in an envelope labeled “Black”) initiates the exposition. Oskar undoubtedly believes that someone with the last name “Black” has information pertaining to his father’s life.  Throughout the film, the audience follows Oskar on an emotional mosaic of his thoughts (given in voice-over narration), memories of his father, and images of an indecipherable man falling from the WTC. Oskar agonizes over the possibility of his father falling to his death but maybe even prefers it to the alternate possibilities of his last mortal moments. This ongoing hyper-analytical mindscape tends to bury the audience in melodrama.

Although Horn’s character deserves more delicacy – because his performances tends to overwhelm – he’s genuinely trying to express the broken psyche of someone affected by loss. His personal and interim relationships seem contrived at points, purely because his harshness deviates so much from the more thoughtful Oskar of Foer’s imagining. Eric Roth, who wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation, reimagines Oskar’s insecurities more acutely than his quirky attributes. Horn dominates the screen, but the tenderness of a boy who misses his father becomes lost in his awkward uncouth tirades.

Although the complicated relationship between Oskar’s grandfather, Thomas Schell Sr.,  and grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) is downplayed in the film, the relationship between Oskar and his grandfather works wonders. Their comradery gives the audience a satisfying relationship to juxtapose the heavier themes at work. The ambiguity between a relationship of reciprocity (the type of relationship Oskar shares with the various Blacks) and communality (the type Oskar shares with his family) creates even more mystery and intrigue. Oskar’s grandmother rents a room to a man to whom she refers only as “the renter.” When Oskar meets this man, who doesn’t speak but communicates by writing in a journal, he’s unaware that he’s meeting his grandfather for the first time.

Curiously, Oskar lets intuition overrule his inquiring mind and invites his grandfather to join his search for the key’s owner. This is where Daldry and Roth go to work on the intimate moments that we’ve been waiting for. Oskar turns his attention away from himself and focuses on learning about his mute accomplice. Max von Sydow aligns all of the pivotal qualities of Thomas Schell Sr. through his facial expressions, body language, and choice words when communicating with Oskar through his journals. His execution is on point, and what impressed me the most was how captivating he was given that he didn’t have a speaking role. His chance to team up with Oskar meant that both of them could work through their loss together. By making it a social activity, neither Oskar nor his grandfather were confined to grieving on their own. Their combined effort lightened the tone of the film, reaffirming one of the crucial life lessons of the expedition: self-authenticity is discovered through social interaction.

There’s almost always an attitude of unease when people compare books to film. Despite the multitude of associations between the two distinct mediums, every artist has a responsibility to their audience to translate something personal that resonates on a universal level. It’s usually a genuine feeling of connectedness or a moment when a character’s experience has made an impression. The creative team on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close had to reimagine specific details in the novel, but remained cohesive in the adaptation.

By the first half of the movie, I had already soaked my sleeves with effortlessly wrought tears. This happened continually until the film’s climax, when Oskar finds the owner to the elusive key. Even during the resolution and Oskar’s highly anticipated breakdown, I couldn’t hold back the blubbering.

The emotionally charged nature of the film was intentional – every scene built up to the moment when Oskar tears through his room, destroying months of detailed research that covered the entirety of the expedition. Even though the key is returned to its owner, there’s still a missing piece to the puzzle. Foer accepts that this is the way life works – because there’s no end to justify the means in the novel. But Roth and Daldry deliver a resolution unique to the film when Horn has an epiphany about the expedition, which leads him to a swing set where his father left a congratulatory note for his persistence to “not stop looking.”

The mise-en-scène (an abandoned swing and children laughing in the background) implies that even though Oskar has the ability to express himself as if he were much older, he’s still a child. During the resolution of his journey through New York, Oskar is aided by the first character he meets in the film – Abby Black (Viola Davis) – in finding the rightful owner of the key. Her ex-husband, William Black (Jeffrey Wright), confirms the details of how Oskar’s father came into possession of the key. The poetic irony is hard to ignore. He feels a connection to Black through the key by relating this found object to their mutual experience of loss. In a moment of unabashed honesty, Oskar informs Black that he never said goodbye to his father before he died on 9/11. His cry for help finally surfaces near the end of the film. His cry had been at bay until this cathartic moment. It’s an extremely emotional moment, especially for someone who never had the chance to say goodbye to someone he loved.

Overall, this highly emotional film feels genuine – to a point. The lack of character development makes the film seem like a coming-of-age story rather than a portrait of numerous stories woven into the narrative of the central character, Oskar Schell. The interwoven flashbacks of Oskar’s father provides critical pathos, which are succinct in delivering the lasting effect of his life, as are his tearful last messages. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close builds on the theme of self-discovery through a relentless search amidst a wounded place. Even though it revisits the tragedies of our pasts, the film’s not afraid to open the wound and demand their retelling.

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