Popular culture has always tried to make sense of tragedy: the Smiths singing about the moors murders or Terrence Malick’s Badlands depicting the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree or, on a global scale, Japanese Manga’s fixation with nuclear holocaust, or the Vietnam protest songs of the 1960s. There has been a reluctance, though, to directly address the events of 11 September 2001. While countless films, songs, and works of art and literature bear its influence, few have tackled it head-on.
There are exceptions: Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, Paul Greengrass’ brutally direct United 93 or John Ney Rieber’s introspective writing for the Captain America comic (which saw the consummate American hero sifting through the rubble alongside fire fighters). Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close wants to be a definitive 9/11 movie, capturing the aftermath of loss and despair and incomprehension. It fails.
It follows Asperger-suffering eleven-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), who is unable to move on from his father’s death. When Oskar finds a key in an envelope labeled “Black”, he convinces himself it is a message from his father and begins a quest that largely involves sifting through the New York phonebook.
The skill in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, from which this is adapted, is his layered prose, giving a real sense of the world closing in on the young, frightened protagonist. Director Stephen Daldry makes a stab at replicating this, with trains screeching by, cars honking and planes droning overhead. But mostly he’s content to follow Oskar from one saccharine encounter to the next. It is all so hopelessly, cloyingly nice it makes Be Kind Rewind look like Straw Dogs.
Around 20 per cent of screen space is taken up by shots of Oskar’s big, glassy eyes, welling up like little, sorrowful fountains – and if that isn’t enough to let you know how tragic it all is, a handy voice-over is never too far away. Carrying the weight of the whole affair, Horn is hopelessly out of his depth. There are parts that are very sad – but then 9/11 was very sad. It’s hardly a difficult sell.
The supporting cast offers little redemption, with Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock too glossily perfect as Oskar’s parents. Max von Sydow is the stand-out exception; his mysterious, mute lodger conveys more of a sense of the unfathomability of loss than the rest of the cast combined, despite never opening his mouth. Daldry’s adaptation may be extremely loud but it’s also incredibly twee.
First published in City A.M.