Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

Originally posted on Jan. 11, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (USA, 2011)

The gist: Undeniably, it's a sappy dramatization of the most horrifying experience for America and beyond, but when a tinge of remorse crosses von Sydow's face, that moment seems rather close to genuine than just manipulation.

Dealing directly with the aftermath of the 9/11 catastrophe, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is such a difficult movie to pass judgment on. It has been accused of bleaching the specifics of the tragedy to arouse most basic emotions like sadness, or basically, of being an exploitative weepie. And an excruciatingly annoying kid as the protagonist doesn’t help its cause, either; Oskar Schell, an apparently autistic and obviously eccentric fatherless boy and the movie’s hero/narrator, can be easily viewed as too unpleasant and inappropriate to represent the calamity-stricken residents in post-9/11 New York City.

While I do not entirely disagree with the widely circulated criticism that it’s a waterlogged fiction based on the tragic watershed that has forever tainted the landscape of global politics, I doubt if it’s a fair assessment to just write off the film’s consolatory, and very idiosyncratic, portrayal of a family coping with a devastating loss as a cheap moneymaking enterprise intended to offend the victims and grieving families. I’m not going to defend its manipulative tendencies, but I wouldn’t call it, say, mere 9/11 porn. Despite its unevenness in pacing and editing, and despite some prolonged moments of saccharinity that should have been curtailed, it still offers somber depictions of this particular earth-shatteringly horrific event and its after-effects. So for me, at least, describing this film in a few words is extremely tricky.  

Since it’s mostly seen from Oskar's point-of-view, a quick sketch of him may help better understand a few directorial and editing choices that often appear fragmentary and all over the map: he's a precocious and loquacious boy prone to nonsensical babbling, who tries to make sense of the world without his father, Thomas. Oskar doesn’t believe in burying an empty casket, yet strives to accustom himself to the post-“worst day” reality by stretching the last eight minutes with his father, as if that made more sense. Then he stumbles across a key in his late father's carefully preserved closet and embarks on an expedition to unearth a lock that fits the key, reasoning that that is the only way to stay in touch with his father.

Much of the movie travels in Oskar’s mind back and forth between his recollections of the happiest moments with Thomas and the dreary real world wherein he panics besieged by traffic and crowds and fears taking public transportation and falling from bridges, while cold-shouldering his mother, Linda. The movie skitters across different time frames and the camera soars and swoops, alternating extreme closeups and long shots, as Oskar runs all over the city. During most of the excursions, director Stephen Daldry’s frequent overheads capture the cityscape beautifully yet poignantly and at the same time, create the illusion that Thomas, somewhere up in the sky, watches over his son who doesn’t stop looking.      

An oxymoronist and a jeweller, Thomas, as warmly recalled by Oskar, never treated his son like a child and was the only one who truly understood him. The fondly reminisced flashbacks of the father-son bonding and a sanitized father figure are in clear opposition to the mother whom Oskar considers deficient and to her brutally realistic, tearjerking scenes, either alone or with her son. But those interjected scenes with Linda seem rather absurd and lengthier than necessary—especially when the camera lingers on the mother’s face—in spite of Sandra Bullock’s heart-wrenching display of a bereft parent’s wretchedness.

Meanwhile, the emphasis on the father figure and its paradoxical nature in this film extends to Max von Sydow’s The Renter, or Oskar’s almost-forgotten grandfather. In Oskar’s universe, the dead father’s always present; the grandfather doesn’t speak but ends up having the most heartfelt conversation with the boy. While the movie’s second half is mostly dedicated to his growing relationship with his grandfather, his grandmother has relatively scant presence. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting and probably lessened the uneasiness of watching the child, who’s almost obscenely rude throughout, if there were more grandmother-grandson interaction? Though Oskar’s peculiar subjectivity propels this trauma-healing narrative in an unprecedented, albeit ultimately obvious, direction, if better edited, the story could have offered more consistent maternal perspective.

There’s no denying that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a sappy dramatization of the most horrifying experience for Americans, and that Oskar is probably the most irritating kid ever seen onscreen. But Thomas Horn’s articulate delivery of the character is one of the film’s few strengths. And his little notepad chats and journey with von Sydow’s grandfather will bring smiles to viewers’ faces. There’s a brief scene where von Sydow stares at framed photos of his deceased son. When a tinge of remorse crosses his face, that moment seems rather close to genuine than just manipulation.


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