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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock star in a film about 9/11 filtered through the eyes of a grieving child

Max Von Sydow and Thomas Horn in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Max Von Sydow is a mysterious old man who accompanies Thomas Horn on his quest. — Photo Courtesy Warner Bros.

Director: Stephen Daldry
Rated: PG-13, Runtime: 129 mins.
Stars: Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock.

En español  |  I don't think I've ever come around on a movie to the degree I did with this one. I almost angrily rejected Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close upon my first viewing. Then I saw it again and loved it for the exact same qualities that led me to dismiss it the first time.

When I first saw the movie, I was impressed only by director Stephen Daldry's powers of manipulation — film fakery filled with characters I didn't recognize imparting emotions I didn't believe for a second.

His central character, a 9-year-old boy named Oskar, is troubled to begin with, but then is traumatized even further by the death of his father in the World Trade Center. Tentatively rooting through his father's closet a year after 9/11, Oskar comes across a mysterious key that he infuses with all kinds of significance. He decides to track down the lock for that key, somewhere in New York, despite having only the vaguest of notions what it is for.

Such a setup is rife with narrative booby traps, and the first time around, I saw the film falling obviously into each and every one of them. Oskar was quirky, I felt, but mostly in a cinematic sense: screenwriter Eric Roth, and presumably novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, burdened Oskar with a flamboyant variation on Asperger's syndrome, one that involved social awkwardness, mile-a-minute speech patterns and an arrogant, insulting manner that his family and everyone else inexplicably found pretty darned precious. Oskar’s quest, stretching from days to weeks to months, seemed engineered to bring him into contact with every big-hearted, nurturing adult between Coney Island and Fort Washington. The numerous flashbacks of Oskar's happy days with Dad (played by Tom Hanks, his force field of lovableness cranked up to full power) seemed patently over the top — unless most dads practice karate with their kids in the living room while simultaneously trading oh-so-clever oxymorons.

What, your dad didn't stage elaborate shadow plays in your bedroom? Or print out business cards for you that read: “Amateur Pacifist”?

Tonight, I saw the film a second time. You can imagine my shock to discover, halfway through, that I was fighting back tears.

Now I get it. I was trying to watch this movie through the eyes of its many adult characters, when in fact Daldry has immersed us in the mind of the troubled child at its center. (Why had I not previously noticed that there are virtually no other youngsters in the entire film?) What I’d seen as manufactured crises and overly sentimental claptrap were, on second thought, meditations on the mind of a child. Things that seem perfectly normal to an adult can be downright terrifying to any kid, not just troubled ones. As for Oskar’s too-good-to-be-true dad, well, how could I have forgotten that for most kids the attention of a single caring grownup can cause that adult to take on superhuman qualities?

You don’t pull off a feat like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close without a nearly miraculous set of performances. Hanks is, of course, Hanks, and that’s plenty. As Oskar’s mom, Sandra Bullock is seen through the boy’s eyes as endlessly sullen and self-absorbed following the loss of her husband. Only toward the end do the scales fall from our eyes and we see her character’s astonishing pluck, her quiet gift for nurturing her son — and Bullock again proves to be a most affecting screen actress. Best of all is Max von Sydow as a mysterious, mute old man who accompanies Oskar on his journey of discovery. Haunted, impetuous and mischievous, he bears many childlike qualities missing in Oskar, and in time some of them do indeed rub off on the boy.

As Oskar, Thomas Horn joins that long list of young actors you can’t help but wonder what will become of them. This is his first movie role, and he seems utterly comfortable in a character’s skin. He’s so wonderfully unaffected, so breathlessly vulnerable, you want to swath him in bubble wrap before Hollywood’s childhood-killing machine gets hold of him.

It took a second look at this film to remember that many of the values we cherish were seeded somewhere in childhood, when the world was extremely big and incredibly scary.

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