In the Middle of Something
Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) misses his dad. And as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close reminds you more than once, he has a hard time expressing this. It’s not for lack of self-confidence or access to language, exactly. He’s actually an extraordinarily articulate 11-year-old, good in school and not shy about talking to people. But he’s unable to describe, even fully comprehend, the loss of his dad, on 9/11, in the World Trade Center.
That loss is, of course, at once profoundly personal and also obscenely collective. And so Stephen Daldry’s movie, based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, makes a mighty effort to reconcile these experiences, to make the strange familiar and the familiar newly illuminating as well.
Oskar’s own strangeness is the ground for this project, a strangeness that’s alternately appealing and alarming, and possibly a function of Asperger’s syndrome (he was tested, he says, but the “results were inconclusive). In his flashbacks, he dotes on his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), who comes up with word games and intellectual challenges for him, practices Taekwondo with him, and encourages him to take a risk on the swing set in a park near their Manhattan apartment (“Jump” urges his dad, “It’s not safe, says his stern-faced child). In these same flashbacks, Oskar’s mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock), observes her boys with a contended smile on her face, pleased that they’re so made for each other, in love with both, but never as full-on comfortable with her son as her husband seems to be.
This means she’s not precisely able to connect with him on or after what Oskar calls “the worst day.” It also means that she’s astoundingly absent from much of the film that takes place in the present, after that day. A year after September 11, she goes to work or, on other occasions, watches her young son leave for day-long excursions into the city and then waits for him to return (he is also observed by Stan the Doorman, played by John Goodman, as if he’s another sort of symbolic figure from a Cohen brothers’ movie). It’s distressing (for a reason eventually revealed) that the film leaves mom out for long stretches, but this choice reinforces its focus on Oskar, who sees the world through an especially limited lens. (It goes without saying in a Daldry movie that this limited lens will turn expansive, through a series of tricks, contrivances, and elucidations.)
This lens helps him to imagine a quest inspired by a key he’s found in his father’s closet, a key with the word “Black” attached to it on a piece of paper. The quest rehearses the sorts of games he played with his father, as he draws out maps and grids and lists, deciding that he must visit each of the 472 people named “Black” in the New York City phone book in order to discover the owner of the key, and thus, some message his father has left him.
Because “public transportation makes me nervous,” Oskar over-explains in voiceover, he must walk to all his destinations. This makes for lots of glorious sidewalk shots, as well as brief encounters and montages, visual shorthands ranging from awkward to obvious to nearly poetic, as Oskar meets with people who invite him into their homes or shut their doors in his face, adorable blond children and elderly immigrants, spiritual instructors and practical advisors—and, on the very first day, the remarkably exposed Abby Black (Viola Davis).
When Oskar shows up, Abby’s own life is turning upside down (“I’m in the middle of something,” she says, to which Oskar responds, “Me too”). Her husband William (Jeffrey Wright) is apparently leaving, their belongings in boxes, their front door ajar as he enters and exits, his phone fixed to his ear. Abby offers Oskar an iced coffee (his request) and then, when he begins looking through her boxes and admires a postcard of a close-up elephant’s eye, she gives that to him too. Her own eyes are misty with tears, and though Abby doesn’t detail the loss she’s suffering, her face stays with you (in part because she’s Viola Davis, always stunning, and in part because the film unsubtly marks this meeting as Significant.
Such marking is something of a pattern in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. While Oskar’s scrupulous planning produces some extraordinary and arbitrary experiences, the movie insists, in close-ups and musical accents, how each moment fits together with another, slowing down scenes and repeating images to make sure you notice them, drawing connections for you. It also introduces a wise guide, for Oskar and you, in the form of the Renter (Max Von Sydow, whose performance more or less transcends the film).
The Renter—so perfectly unnamed—lives in Oskar’s grandmother’s (Zoe Caldwell) apartment and doesn’t speak, a vivid contrast with the hyper-chatty Oskar. His silence is unsubtle (he writes notes or, for most conversations, flashes his palms, one each marked with “Yes” and ““No.” When he holds up both at once in response tone of Oskar’s questions, you see both the end and the opening out of the boy’s insistent precision and desperation for An Answer.
The Renter and William end up occupying the film’s most important lessons for Oskar. That both men keep secrets is actually helpful for the film, which likes too much to spell out what Oskar learns and how his quest is organized. These secrets are submerged in pain that’s hard to describe but not so hard to share. So, even as Oskar’s plot turns devicey and unconvincing, the Renter and William offer respite, moving embodiments of what can’t be deduced or concluded, only shared.