The ridiculous notion that there’s such a thing as closure drives so much of our pop culture that’s it difficult to find anybody willing to admit that, for some things, there just isn’t any pat resolution. The truth is that we are often left hurting long after a traumatic event. While many learn to cope with that hurt, there are always going to be moments which feel raw and fresh. (My father’s death is like that for me: Seventeen years later, I can’t speak of him without tearing up.) So, the conceit of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, is one to which we all can relate. A boy, Oskar (Thomas Horn) searches all over New York City in an effort to find the lock that will fit a key left behind by his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), who perished on 9/11.
It must be noted that Oskar may have Asperger’s Syndrome, which would go a long way to explaining his (even for an 11 year old) meager social skills—and his obsession with completing the daunting task of interviewing thousands of people named “Black,” which was the name written on the envelope containing the key. Oskar is convinced that finding the lock will reveal a compelling answer to the puzzle of his father’s death.
And who can blame him? Seen in many flashbacks, Thomas is to fatherhood as Martha Stewart is to nesting projects. Here is a dad who never loses his temper or reveals impatience, even when his son is being impossible; a father whose vibrant imagination brings forth amazing adventures for Oskar, leading us to believe that he himself must have some sort of manic disorder. In comparison, Oskar’s mother Linda (a heartbreaking Sandra Bullock) is reserved, retiring, and, post-widowhood, emotionally barren. Oskar despises her for living, completely unaware that his words have the effect on her of a stoning.
Director Stephen Daldrey gets a remarkable, if often very annoying (due to the nature of Oskar’s personality), performance from Horn. Oskar’s words fill out the story, leaving little room for anything else, such as empathy or even an understanding of why we’re supposed to find this narrative compelling. At one point, Oskar enlists the help of an ancient man known only as The Renter (Max von Sydow), who may or may not be Thomas’ father, and who communicates solely through handwritten notes and an extremely expressive, haunted face. The two visit many, many Blacks, using Oskar’s complex filing system, and take photos of all of them. The Blacks of New York are white, black, Asian, fat, skinny, religious, seriously scary looking, gay, sick . . . basically every potentiality of humanity, except none leads to the lock.
Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright, as a couple whose marriage is collapsing in front of Oskar, deliver quietly moving performances, but would have been served much better in their own movie. Countless times, one wonders, who in their right mind would let a chattering, obsessed, strange child into their homes? And what about all the Blacks who are not listed in the directory? Those who live off the grid or are homeless or gave up their landlines long ago? Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tries to make Oskar’s obsession with his father something to which we all can relate and even admire, but more often than not, had me wishing that Linda would take her son for some much-needed counseling.