Talking in Circles: ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’

Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a boy who goes searching for clues after his father’s death on 9/11 is yet another failed attempt to translate this author to the screen.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Viola Davis, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, Max von Sydow
Distributor: Warner
Studio: Warner Bros.
Release Date: 2011-03-27
“It doesn’t make sense.”

—Oskar Schell

A quiet paen to personal discovery that masquerades as a quixotic journey into the wasteland of grief, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close makes a valiant attempt to understand catastrophe and loss but never manages to truly come to grips with it. This is a film in which the shadow of 9/11 is supposed to always be there, even though the smoking towers are only glimpsed a few times, once from a great distance and otherwise through televised news segments. But the horror of that day is sieved through too many filters and ends up as almost an abstraction.

The central relationship here is that between the nine-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn, a true discovery) and his father Thomas (Tom Hanks, rivetingly genial, if such a thing is possible), who died in the World Trade Center. The film opens on a rich banquet of father-son playfulness, with the always game Thomas leading his odd, puzzle-obsessed, borderline-genius son on a series of curious quests. Like most parents, Thomas knows that one of the great joys of having children is selling them on fanciful untruths, and so he has Oskar believing that there was once a sixth borough of New York, now missing.

Oskar embarks on one “Reconnaissance Expedition” after another to prove the existence of this lost land. Oskar is so enmeshed in these make-believe games, with their random clues that send him scouring over Manhattan with metal detector and notebook like some grade-school explorer, that he’s oblivious to Thomas’s real goal: to figure out ways to get his nervous, frightened son out into the great wide world.

It makes a kind of sense, then, that after Thomas is lost in when the towers fall, that Oskar would empty his sadness into a new citywide hunt. Oskar is unable to truly comprehend the loss; a great early scene has him erupting at Thomas’s funeral over the illogic of burying an empty casket. After finding in Thomas’s closet a small envelope with the word “Black” written on it, and a key inside, Oskar decides that this must be a clue to the greatest Reconnaissance Expedition of all time. With the inventiveness and mind-boggling dedication of the gifted child, Oskar turns his life into a mission to find who Black is, how they knew his father, and what lock the key would open.

Oskar’s hunt is a great and elaborately imagined Rube Goldberg kind of thing, with maps and minutely broken-down lists, that takes him across the width and breadth of New York. He has supplies and a schedule and an unerring sense that there is a mystery to be solved. Along the way, he picks up a co-searcher. Known only as The Renter (Max von Sydow), Oskar’s assistant is an old man living in his grandmother’s apartment across the street who, possibly because of an old wartime trauma, refuses to talk. He writes notes in a little notebook, or holds up his palms, with “No” written on one, and “Yes” on the other. It being von Sydow, there is a river of language communicated through each eyebrow-tweak, sigh, and shrug. As beautiful as von Sydow’s performance is, though, it's in the service of a character who is highly problematic, to say the least.

Oskar’s oddities and quasi-autistic blindness to the needs of others ring true, the casual cruelties he metes out from his cosseted mini-universe of gameplaying (apparently completely unencumbered by encounters with any other children) to his suffering mother (Sandra Bullock) and his building’s put-upon doorman (a wasted John Goodman) feel correct for this kind of youthful autodidact. But while Horn (himself a precocious non-actor discovered after appearing on Jeopardy!) makes Oskar make sense, it’s hard to swallow The Reader’s all-too-convenient appearance in his life-quest. This is a kid, after all, who’s so panicked by everyday outdoor life that he carries a tambourine with him for comfort – the sound soothes his motorhead nerves. Pairing him with a silent guardian in black as they traipse through the boroughs brings the film to near-critical symbolic overload. Yes, they both have difficulties communicating but perhaps they can hear each other in ways nobody else can; understood.

The screenplay is by Eric Roth, from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. As Liev Schreiber’s hardworking but unsuccessful adaptation of Foer’s first novel, Everything is Illuminated proved, Foer’s writing is a knotty challenge for filmmakers. There is an essential unreality to Foer’s digressive fiction, with all its linguistic playfulness and tight-knotted constructions, that makes it a tonal nightmare when transferred into the bright reality of mainstream cinema. Director Stephan Daldry would initially seem like the right guy to take on such a challenge. WithThe Reader and The Hours, Daldry took tricky novels about sadness, guilt, and memory – themes that certainly resonate in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – and turned them into wracking, wrenching films grounded by dark, sharp-edged performances.

But Daldry’s take on Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close doesn’t do Foer justice. This was always going to be a problematic kind of film, its playful and whimsical asides always threatening to undermine the import of the tragedy behind it all. Daldry miffs it almost from the start, overusing Horn’s too-emphatic, busy voiceovers that further distance the viewer from an already-fractured narrative. The film’s tone is hard to gauge, with Chris Menges’s postcard-bright, almost romantic-comedy-styled cinematography not working at all for the interiorized peculiarities of Oskar’s world. (This is the rare DVD release where more special features, particularly on how the filmmakers viewed the novel and their take on it, would be helpful. The single feature on this disc is a mostly pointless short bit on the discovery of Horn as an actor.)

Foer’s writing seems to emphasize the role of Oskar’s grimly determined sense of play as a coping mechanism against unimaginable loss. Roth and Daldry, though, seem to be pushing for therapeutic relief instead of an offbeat view of tragedy. The result, sprinkled with some nice moments as it is, threatens to make the momentous trite.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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