Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
We all felt 9/11. We watched it, heard it, grieved in the midst of it. The world shook and our souls trembled because we all lost something that day.
We lost confidence. We lost innocence. We lost our sense of security.
But few of us lost our fathers.
Ten-year-old New Yorker Oskar Schell is a naturalist, a pacifist, a martial artist, an oxymoronist. Most importantly, he's an expeditionist, embarking on incredibly elaborate scavenger hunts designed by his father. In the fall of 2001, Oskar had been searching for proof of New York City's sixth borough—a supposed sliver of an island that one day simply floated away. Few people believe it ever existed, father Thomas warns his son. Evidence will be hard to find. But you must search. And search Oskar does, finding clues—rocks, pieces of paper, old eyeglasses—for his father to inspect. And when Oskar asks his dad if one of his clues leads to something, Thomas shrugs his shoulders mysteriously.
See, for Thomas, the search for the sixth borough is beside the point. The idea is to send Oskar out into the city—encourage the boy to explore, to expand. Because his boy isn't just a naturalist, a pacifist and an oxymoronist. He's a scared naturalist, pacifist and oxymoronist. He's scared of bridges, of old people, of trains, of swings. He doesn't like interacting with people he doesn't know very well. He's obsessive. Doctors suspect he may have Asperger's syndrome. But tests (as Oskar says) are inconclusive. And so as Oskar searches for the mythical borough, Thomas is on his own quest—a quest to keep Oskar's quick, frenzied brain busy, a quest to keep his son engaged with the world around him.
And then comes 9/11. Oskar's father vanishes in the smoke. What remains is two degrees removed: an old camera, a sport coat, an answering machine with six precious messages made that day—bearing his voice, his emotion, his concern, his love, frozen in that moment. Night after night, Oskar plays them over, one by one.
A year after 9/11, Oskar, now 11, works up the courage to go into his father's closet again, where all the clothes still hang just as they always have. He smells the sleeves of the sport coat, rubs it against his face. He reaches onto a higher shelf, looking for the camera. And—
A vase, a blue vase, falls and shatters—explodes. And in the heart of the shards of wreckage, Oskar finds an envelope. It has the word "Black" written on it. And inside, there's a key.
Oskar's mind begins to churn, to leap, to cartwheel to conclusions. It's a last scavenger hunt, he surmises—a mystery his father wanted him to solve. And so, hiding the discovery from his overworked mother, Oskar begins another adventure and dives into the city alone.
One night in bed, Oskar contemplates the sun. If it was snuffed out right now, he tells us, we'd not notice for eight full minutes. "For eight minutes, the world would still be bright," he says, "and the world would still be warm." Oskar believes that he's still, somehow, basking in the glow of his "eight minutes" with his father: This newest quest is a way to drag those minutes out as long as possible.
There's something very sad and very sweet about that. In a significant way, Oskar's still looking for his dad's posthumous approval. He's trying to be brave and determined, just like his father would've liked. And even when the quest turns discouraging, Oskar refuses to give up, searching for months to find the mysterious lock—talking with hundreds of people along the way.
Now, the search itself is problematic: Most of us shudder at the idea of an 11-year-old prowling the streets of NYC talking with scads of strangers. But in Oskar's frenzied mind, it's what he feels like he has to do to stay close to his father and honor his memory. And if we can't honor Oskar's actions, we can at least acknowledge and laud the intent behind them.
And it's not like he's alone all the time. An elderly mute man living at his grandmother's house—known for most of the movie as "The Renter"—winds up accompanying him quite often, and the two form an unlikely bond. The Renter becomes a surrogate father to Oskar, sometimes forcing the boy out of his comfort zone. Oskar, in turn, becomes a link to The Renter's mysterious past.
Along the way, Oskar meets people who are remarkably understanding and sympathetic to his quest. Not that Oskar notices at first. "I didn't want to feel better," he says. "I didn't want a friend. I just wanted the lock." But in spite of his single-minded determination, these people help Oskar, and he helps them in turn deal with their own hurts and loses. It seems as though everyone is grieving for someone or something, and this bizarre little boy becomes a conduit to help ease that grief a little.
While the search makes Oskar feel closer to his father, he grows apart from his mom. He says some angry, even hateful things to her. But underneath all the pain they never stop loving each other. And even though Oskar believes his mom doesn't understand him the way Dad did, or is engaged with him in the same way, he learns later that he sold both his mother's intentions and abilities well short.
We're given glimpses of Thomas' life largely through the memories of his son. We learn that he wanted to be a scientist but became a jeweler instead—a sacrifice, we're led to believe, that he made for his family. He loves his quirky, sometimes frustrating kid with the passion only a parent can muster.
We also know that Oskar's mother and father loved each other deeply. One of the women whom Oskar visits is going through a painful divorce; later, we learn that she and her husband reconcile—perhaps because of the boy.
Though Oskar doesn't seem particularly religious—the ethereal aspect of faith doesn't jibe well with his persnickety mind—the film deals with some deeply spiritual issues. It provides no answers: It only asks that its characters come to peace with the questions.
Oskar fumes at the idea of burying an "empty box" in place of his father. To him, the funeral (clearly Christian) is a facade, disguising the fact that his father is now literally spread over the city—cells resting on rooftops or breathed in by passersby or absorbed by dogs to be excreted. "He's gone, Oskar," his mother tells him. "It's never going to make sense because it doesn't." And yet, for Oskar, it has to make sense. He has to find a way to make it make sense—a spiritual quest if there ever was one.
In his travels, Oskar meets a deeply religious woman who prays for him and asks other believers to lay hands on him. "Dear God," she says. "Watch over Oskar … keep him safe and in Your loving arms." Later, she tells Oskar to remember that "every day is a miracle."
"I don't believe in miracles," he says.
"Finding the lock this [key] fits would be a miracle," she says.
Later, Oskar rattles off questions of faith, wondering (among other things) if that lady's God was the same one as his family's.
One of the people Oskar visits is a man dressed in drag. (Oskar wonders if he had a "VJ" or a penis.)
The 9/11 disaster covers the entire movie like a blanket of haze. Through Oskar, we relive the day in heartbreaking detail: He keeps printed pictures of people falling from the towers, and he wonders aloud whether one might be his father. He watches the first tower fall on television. We get repeated views of the smoking skyscrapers.
Oskar takes all this out on himself. For months he's been pinching himself hard enough to bruise and even draw blood, and his torso is covered in self-inflicted wounds. He confesses to The Renter that he's worried he might do something "bad" to himself. And during the search, he sometimes loses his temper—lashing out by pushing things around and over. He tears up maps, mutilates his own handiwork and screams like a boy who lost his father might well scream. Because of his sensitive mind and his harrowing experience, everyday things—planes flying a little too low, trains, bridges—carry a sense of menace that's vividly conveyed to moviegoers.
Crude or Profane Language
Oskar, several times, and his doorman, once, engage in wordplay that pushes nearly into profanity, sounding, spoken rapidly, like f- and s-words (among others). But nothing they say is explicitly foul. Oskar does blurt out a clear s-word once. We hear "d--khead" and "a‑‑" once each. There are a couple of misuses of God's name. Put-downs include "retard" and "spaz."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Thomas and Oskar's mother sit at a table with glasses of wine. One of the folks Oskar visits tries to hide the glass of whiskey he's drinking.
Other Negative Elements
When Oskar dives into the scavenger hunt, he begins counting his lies. His tally gets up to at least 64. (We know because he tells us.) He also tells a handful of lies after he stops his quest.
He and his mother get into a shouting match one night: "I wish it were you," Oskar tells her. "I wish it were you in the building instead of him."
"So do I," she says sadly. And when her son tries to make it up to her, telling her he didn't mean it, she looks at him and says, "Yes you did," and tells him to go to bed.
Oskar plots this newest scavenger hunt with military precision. He knows how many people he must talk with. He plans out how long each conversation should take. He numbers off each visitation, calculating down to the day how long the whole search will take.
But then he realizes something: People aren't like numbers at all, but letters. And these letters keep wanting to make stories. He finds himself getting absorbed not in a mathematical equation—one with a logical pattern and an assured end—but a sprawling epic, filled with character and ambiguity and uncertainty.
In this world of story, Oskar (and we) slowly come to grips with some hard realities: That things don't always add up. That they don't always make sense. That hurt and loss happen and we don't know why … and yet we must find the strength and the courage to move on.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a powerful and poignant film. The emotions unfurled can be wrenching, and I think as a parent—like many of the people Oskar meets—you wish you could walk into the movie and try to help take the pain away. You can't, of course, so you end up thinking more deeply about your own family. Your own losses. Your own challenges. Your own determination. Your own hidden hope.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell; Tom Hanks as Thomas Schell Jr.; Sandra Bullock as Oskar's Mother; Max von Sydow as Thomas Schell Sr.; Viola Davis as Abby Black
December 25, 2011
March 27, 2012