Ten years on, and attempts to dramatize 9/11 are still a sticky wicket. This adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s bestselling 2005 novel does itself no favors by making pretty visual poetry of a falling man its very first image, and it feels like an affront – an atonal picture of placidity as code for something unspeakably awful. I’m not arguing against poetic license here – and surely it’s the work of an artist to try to find words for those unspeakable things – but Daldry’s opening act is a hackles-raiser.
Where you come down on the characterization of its protagonist, a maybe-autistic motormouth 11 year old named Oskar Schell (Horn), will either smooth those hackles or stand them at attention for two hours. Reeling from the death of his father Thomas (Hanks) in the World Trade Center attacks, Oskar is convinced his father has left him a mission, in the spirit of the “reconnaissance expeditions” the two used to caper around the city on, in search of a mythic sixth borough. By accident, Oskar discovers a key in search of a lock, and his only clue the surname of Black, scribbled on an envelope. From there, Oskar must overcome his debilitating terrors and tics to quiz every Mr., Mrs., or Ms. Black in the city, looking to ferret out some connection to his father, while his mother (Bullock) shambles at home, near-catatonic with grief. Daldry and his adapter, Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), seamlessly integrate into Oskar’s outings flashbacks to before his father died and to 9/11 – “the worst day,” as Oskar calls it – to create multiple layers of suspense that move the film forward until it sogs in its last act.
A first-time actor, Horn dominates the film through screentime and force of presence. His portrayal of Oskar is admirably off-putting, bristling with a sincere and full-bodied intensity. (He has a way of vomiting out words that feels true to an overburdened boy forever on the knife’s edge of a panic attack.) His lunging, logorrheic portrait contrasts well with that of Max von Sydow, as a neighbor and shut-in who emerged from the Dresden bombings emotionally ravaged and mute, and Daldry, something of an over-emoter, etches with moving restraint their mutual hunger for connection in a wordless scene in which Horn does nothing so special as feeds von Sydow a juice box.
As a portrait of what happens to a family when its glue disappears, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close wrung a bucket of tears out of me. As unlikely a pairing as Hanks and Bullock seem, they establish with economy and unshowy sentiment a loving partnership, and Hanks’ distinctively playful persona works well here, as a patient parent who knows how to communicate with his uneasy son and swallow his occasional disappointments. But Daldry’s seeming-magnetic pull toward the maudlin – which ruined his last picture, The Reader – means every raw spot must be assuaged, every downcast face lifted with a swelling score and swoopy camera. And back to that falling man; he reemerges, all pretty poetry, to coda the film. The heart, pried open, slams shut again.