Directed by Brit Stephen Daldry and adapted from the 2005 novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, US drama Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) was one of the surprise inclusions of this year’s Best Picture Academy Award nominee list – and rightly so. Beneath its emotional subject matter and 9/11-centric narrative lies a cynical Oscar-baiting ‘weepy’, and one of the least-deserving Best Picture nominees since 2009’s The Blind Side.
Central to the film’s over-elaborate, massively contrived narrative is Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a nine-year-old, semi-autistic boy who loses his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) during the terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. Unable to deal emotionally with his grief, Oskar carries on the game of ‘Reconnaissance Mission’ he once played with his father, seeking for the lock that matches a key he finds in Thomas’ wardrobe (held in an envelope labelled simply ‘Black’) and also the mythical ‘sixth borough’ that his father often spoke of.
Refusing to involve his widowed mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) in proceedings, Oskar finds an unlikely helper in the form of a mysterious mute ‘Renter’ (Max von Sydow), taken in as a lodger by his grandmother across the street. Together, the two lost souls search Manhattan for clues to the lock’s location, endeavouring to contact every individual with the surname Black listed in the phone book.
A number of films have attempted to approach the subject of 9/11 through a variety of methods and means (with varying degrees of success) from Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006) to Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (2006). Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is far-and-away the most contrived in terms of narrative, setting up a bafflingly elaborate series of quests and sub quests in order for Oskar to come to a simple conclusion – his father is dead, and he isn’t coming back.
Exploring such tragic real world events through the eyes of a semi-autistic child certainly seemed an intriguing concept, but Daldry’s mawkish – at times unbearable – adaptation quickly renders any poignancy or audience subjectivity obsolete. Oskar’s grating voiceover leaves no room for ambiguity, with Daldry dragging his audience through a muddled tale of swings, tambourines and wardrobes.
In terms of talent, Horn appears grossly mis-directed as Oskar, taking the trope of the stunted autistic child to new lows. Hanks and Bullock appear relatively briefly throughout (with Hanks almost literally phoning his performance in), whilst Max von Sydow is hideously miscast as the enigmatic mute – why Daldry thought he would give one of the most recognisable voices of world cinema a non-speaking role is anyone’s guest, and Sydow has done very well to somehow mug his way to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a dire film – a cynically manufactured, glossy attempt to win over audiences and Oscar voters with a bizarre tale of an autistic child grieving after his world is shattered by the Twin Towers attack; a gruelling watch – but for all the wrong reasons.