Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is grief writ large, and yet also taken down to it’s most raw and intimate.
And you don’t get much more raw and intimate than the 11 year old boy at the centre of the absorbing drama, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), who loses his much loved dad on 9/11 and then struggles to make sense of a world so shattered it defies his attempts to put it back together.
In truth, he can’t. Just like the blue vase, containing a mysterious key inside a yellow envelope with the word “Black” on it, which falls from a shelf in his dad’s cupboard and shatters when he finally ventures into his father’s inner sanctum a year after his death, he can’t put the pieces together. It’s beyond his reach as a child, especially as the adults around him, chiefly his mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock) and his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) are struggling just as much to make sense of their great loss.
In his quest to make sense of it all, he listens over and over to voicemail messages left by his dad (Thomas Schell played by Tom Hanks) on what he calls “The Worst Day”, saddened beyond words by the escalating desperation in his father’s voice, but unable to cut himself loose from this last link to the only parent who truly “got” him. (You only find out much later in the movie that these messages have even greater resonance and regret for him than what is apparent at first.)
He is trying desperately hard to make the most of the last eight minutes he has left with his father, a reference to the fact that if the sun was to ever splutter and die that we would have eight minutes to enjoy the light that was left. With his father gone, he feels as if he must do everything in his power to enjoy the light of his father’s presence for the short time it still burns brightly.
But it’s a light that is fading, which he freely, and sorrowfully admits. He feels like he is letting his father down by not doing enough to keep his memory alive, and he spends hours in the topmost part of his wardrobe, in what is essentially a shrine to the parent he loved deeply. He keeps all this quiet from his mother, whom he loves but whom he feels increasing isolated from as he strives with everything in his power to stay close to the flickering presence of his father.
His father, you learn early on, was a the mainstay of his world, and that’s why his loss is so keenly felt, and why Oskar’s desperate need to honour his memory is so intense. With his mother always at work, or “in absentia” as he accuses her during the film, it was his father who created ever more elaborate hunts for clues that Oskar had to follow all over Manhattan in search of the missing sixth borough. It was an attempt to get Oskar engaged with the world around him, something he seemed disinclined to do without the prodding his father playfully provided. In tandem with these grand urban adventures, Thomas Schell played “Extreme Oxymorons” with his son (a rare moment of humour in an emotionally dense film) and engaged him at every opportunity to keep him thinking, enquiring, interacting.
With his father’s passing, Oskar finds his life diminished by the loss of his father’s energy and passion. He is adrift, and though his mother tries to fill the void, he feels like his life can only have meaning again if he can do something for his father. But he has no idea what that would be as he retreats deeper and deeper into the interior world his father worked so hard to draw him out of.
It’s at this point that he decides that the only way to truly honour the memory of his father is to find out what lock the key that was in the blue vase opens. He is sure it opens something important and is a fitting last quest that his father would want him to undertake. With characteristic painstaking thoroughness, he draws up an elaborate grid mark of New York, finds out where all the people with the surname Black live in the five boroughs and sets out to meet them all, believing that one of them holds the key (or the lock really) to getting past the pain of his father’s death.
Of course dealing with his grief isn’t as simple as completing this impossible quest but even if he suspects this, and he is an exceptionally bright kid, he cannot even begin to admit that to himself. He presses on with the help of his newly discovered grandfather ( and the unseen help of his mother, which sows the seeds for their eventual reconciliation) but ultimately learns that he probably suspected all along – that the healing comes in the journey, not the destination which is nothing like he expected.
The movie has been criticized for these sorts of philosophical underpinnings. It’s been criticised for being too earnest, too intense, and an overly sentimental and belaboured look at grief, especially grief experienced against the now iconic events of 9/11. The feeling has been that the film is manipulative and not a worth exploration of such a weighty issue.
But I’d argue just the opposite. Oskar’s grief is genuine, raw and visceral. He may come across as too self-aware but his intelligence and defiant sense of purpose is simply a cover for a child struggling to make sense of what his mother admits at one point “makes no sense”. I think his grief, and pain are palpable and perhaps it’s the fact that he is so intelligent and possibly autistic, that has obscured for the film’s many critics what for me is very real affecting emotion.
This movie didn’t feel forced or manipulative for a second. It was as real as it gets as were the relationships with just about everyone in his life. I suspect that much of the criticism of this film stems from the fact that you can’t truly do justice to the still raw emotions surrounding an event as impacting as 9/11.
It’s likely you can’t, but Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud does a superb of representing the grief it causes in microcosm. It moved me deeply.