‘Extremely Loud…’ a devastating drama about 9/11

by Bill Wine
Posted 4/16/21

As overwhelmingly sad as the subject matter is, the film's imprint is not only life-affirming but, almost miraculously, hopeful as well. 

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‘Extremely Loud…’ a devastating drama about 9/11


Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

It's not extremely loud, but it is incredibly close.  To our hearts and minds.  And it's dramatically devastating.

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” (2011) is a poignant, stimulating, PG-13-rated drama about the tragic effects and aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, a subject that recent movies have addressed only occasionally (“World Trade Center,” “United 93”), as if it were too soon after our collective trauma to turn our shock and grief into "entertainment."

But from its arresting opening through its moving conclusion, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” – which was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture -- proves either that it has now been a long enough thematic embargo or that with enough creativity, intelligence, and sensitivity applied, it's much more than just possible to do the subject justice.

Based on the best-selling 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer and directed by Stephen Daldry, “Extremely Loud” tells its heartbreaking story through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy named Oskar Schell, played by Thomas Horn, whose doting dad, a jeweler played by Tom Hanks, lost his life on that fateful day of a year ago -- what Oskar always refers to as "the worst day" -- when he was attending a meeting in one of the Twin Towers.

The troubled, fast-talking protagonist, Oskar, has Asperger’s Syndrome.  After his father is taken from him, the earthly connection between them seemingly gone forever, he finds a key and wonders what the lock that it fits would tell him about his father.

Sandra Bullock plays his mother, who has trouble getting through to her son as they go through their grief process and heal in very different ways.

So Oskar undertakes a singular and apparently impossible journey of self-discovery throughout New York City's five boroughs, using every ounce of his considerable intelligence and resourcefulness to track down and contact anyone who might hold a key to the key.

Of course, he could use a little grownup help.  And it comes in the form of his grandmother's (Zoe Caldwell) mysterious, mute boarder, a Holocaust survivor played by Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Max Van Sydow, who begins accompanying him on his frequent trips across town.

The time-shifting script by veteran screenwriter Eric Roth is an intense father-son drama that proves astonishingly adept at turning elements of the story that would seem to work much better on the page into effectual elements of visual storytelling.

As overwhelmingly sad as the subject matter is, the film's imprint is not only life-affirming but, almost miraculously, hopeful as well.  And because Daldry doesn't push too many emotional buttons in the early going, the film's final reels have an uncanny emotional power.

Hanks is solid and Bullock efficiently effective, as the stars lend their collective screen presence to the film and hover over it even when they're not on-screen, and Von Sydow does wonders with his silent role. 

But it's the remarkable Horn -- who had never acted before and was discovered as a contestant and champion on the kids' edition of TV's Jeopardy -- who carries the film.  And he's a revelation.  Rarely is a child performer depended upon for this level of nuance, this much complicated dialogue, this volume of voiceover narration, or this amount of up-close-and-personal screen time.  But Horn can toot his own because he's a champion here too

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” is a heart-wrenching and rewarding 9/11-themed drama about loss, grief and love.