Review: ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ mines 9/11 and autism for emotional weight

I wish I were more resistant to Stephen Daldry’s movies.

He’s given to the sort of grand gestures that can drive me nuts in some filmmakers who don’t earn those moments, who work at the depth of a car commercial, but put to service of some fairly well-groomed material.  And I’m a guy who really liked “Everything Is Illuminated,” the first film that was adapted from the work of Jonathan Safran Foer.  I think this guy writes lovely little books that filmmakers can get crazy about, gorgeous little challenges.  Here, he’s crafted a narrative that depends completely on finding the right kid.  You’ve got to believe this kid and his relationship with his parents, and the parents have to work quickly, and you have to be ready to be sucker punched by this one, because it’s going to work you, and in more ways than many people will expect.

I think any advertising for this makes it fairly clear that the main hook is “Boy loses his father, WHO HAPPENS TO BE TOM HANKS, in 9/11, and then struggles.”  That’s clear.  And to be fair, that sort of is the whole movie.  A boy struggles to deal with the loss of his totally awesome father in a very famous tragedy.  “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”  Here’s a U2 song.  I see this movie coming, and it makes me nervous.  It looks to me like it will be shameless.  And if you listen to some other critics, the movie is shameless.  It is that worst case scenario.

But I don’t think so.

Thomas Horn is a first-time actor, a “Jeopardy” contestant that the producers saw and liked.  He plays Oskar Schell, the little boy who is our way into the story.  This, as much as anything else this year, is an exercise in voice, a film about the way someone sees the world.  I think it’s interesting that both this and “The Girl WIth The Dragon Tattoo” are produced by Scott Rudin, and both feature lead characters who gradually indicate certain things about themselves, certain markers that might suggest they land somewhere on the Asperger’s Index.  These are autistic narrators, then, giving us a glimpse inside the panic and the confusion and the different way of processing things.  

Lisbeth Salander is a superhero by virtue of the fact that she’s super-smart with a computer and seemingly unstoppable in close-quarters physical confrontation.  She’s a machine, a Terminator for the anti-psychotics age.  And Oskar Shell is the opposite, an autistic angel, a healing spirit, incomplete on his own but able to repair other in small ways from encounter to encounter.  He does a a world of good simply through the process of looking for answers that may not even exist.  He has to do things his own way, and he has to arrive at his answers in whatever process gets him there.  The film is about that journey for him, that effort to make sense of nonsensical violence.  Both films offer these new archetypes, and I think it’s fascinating that we’ve reached this point now in the mainstreaming of this seemingly-increasing population.  We’ve started saying that they’re fair game for comedy in things like “Big Bang Theory” and that they can be treated in this sort of mythologized way.  None of these things are “about” autism in any direct way, but that’s what makes it notable.

Likewise, does the film have to take place on 9/11?  I think it makes very fair use of the morning and the way it felt, and I say that knowing full well that the way I felt on that morning is not the way you felt, or the way anybody else felt.  It was very personal, even though it was something that happened to all of us, symbolically speaking.  And for New Yorkers, it is something that no one outside of New York can experience or understand the same way.  I had a strong reaction that morning, but I wasn’t in harm’s way.  I couldn’t smell the smoke on the air.  I don’t have tangible physical memories of it.  Daldry’s film is not being well-received by New York critics at all, and I wonder if that’s part of it.  I feel like the film uses the moment because it is a lightning bolt we all shared, and it’s important that the entire community that Oskar interacts with all have some investment in his healing.  That’s the point of the film, I think, the sense that the only way we can recover from something shattering is through other people, and through new experience.  Only life can repair a broken life, and ultimately, that’s the thing this movie wants to dramatize.

I think it’s really lovely, and yes, part of the trick of the film is the casting of his dad and his mom, and I think both Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock do very strong work, warm and open and able to really support Horn in his work.  What I found most compelling is the way the film doesn’t really apologize for the shrill nature of the characters at the start of the film.  It’s a movie that does not invite you in up front.  Oskar is played shrill and his mother is played shrill and the world itself is shrill.  But over the course of the film, Daldry gradually steers it all towards the calm, towards something more centered, and the film’s voice shifts.  And as it shifts, it finally does invite you in, and as a result, that last act connects with a blunt force, a real emotional wallop.

I’ve watched the new Louis CK special “Live At The Beacon Theater” a few times now, and there’s one run of material in particular that just devastates me.  It’s about the lengths that parents will go to in an effort to protect their children, and when I think about the way “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” pulls everything together in the last twenty minutes, it cuts right past anything that is calculated or obvious about the film.  That’s why I find I can’t resist Daldry as a filmmaker.  Even when I know what strings he’s pulling, and even when he’s totally blatant about pulling them, he has the ability to zero in on the one thing that makes it impossible to shield myself emotionally, and in this film, his wrap-up more than redeems any missteps the film makes earlier.  Great work by Jeffrey Wright, Viola Davis, the lovely Max Von Sydow, and a whole slew of character actors in small roles give this film the tapestry feeling that Daldry’s reaching for, and in the end, it all comes down to Horn for me, this kid trying to wrestle a broken and bewildering world into some shape that makes sense.  If it hits you the way it hit me, it’s a hard one to shake.

“Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” opens in limited release on Christmas Day, then goes wider on January 20, 2012.