Late in 2011, I wrote down a series of movie-related New Year’s resolutions for myself in 2012. One of those resolutions was to challenge myself by seeing films I might ordinarily pass up. Ironically enough, right around the time I was making that resolution, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close hit theatres. It looked like a lot of cloying dreck, to be blunt, and I had planned to avoid it. This, despite the fact that it was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. Fast forward nearly six months. Warner Brothers sent me my own Blu-ray copy of Extremely Loud for free. It was as if they said “Oh, you’re challenging yourself, John? Here’s a free copy of Extremely Loud. Your move.” And so I shed my preconceived notions and watched the movie.
Extremely Loud is about a boy named Oskar Schell whose father died on 9/11. Through flashbacks, we see how close he was to his father. We also see that Oskar is full of phobias, and that his father patiently attempts to help him overcome them. After his father dies, Oskar enters his father’s closet and accidentally discovers a mysterious envelope with a key in it, and only the name “Black” written on the envelope. Oskar interprets it as his father’s final challenge to overcome his phobias, and begins tracking down every person with the surname “Black” in New York City in an effort to discover what the key will unlock.
I’m very conflicted about Extremely Loud. The film possesses a healthy batch of both pros and cons. I’d like to list the positives first. Making this movie was a bit of a bold task. Very few filmmakers have taken on 9/11 in the decade since, and none of them (to my knowledge) has approached the psychological impact it had on children. And that particular setting is fertile territory for a great drama. Director Stephen Daldry’s film flirts with greatness- or at least, goodness- throughout. Oskar’s interaction with the various citizens of New York in the years after 9/11 is touching at the core. The score and cinematography are both fantastic, helping to give the film a bit more gravitas. And Max Von Sydow is- predictably- amazing as “The Renter”, a character who can only communicate by writing notes in sharpie in a notebook.
There’s a phrase I like that does a great job of encapsulating the cons. The phrase: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”. The film took so much criticism for being cloying Oscar bait. It seemed like critics might be piling on unfairly, taking one idea about the film and running it into the ground. Just because the critics piled on the accusations of emotional manipulation doesn’t mean it’s not true. It’s very emotionally manipulative. Many scenes, especially those involving Oskar’s mother (Sandra Bullock), are overindulgent. It makes the film feel insincere and inorganic. It’s forced. And it sucks the weight right out of what could have been a very good movie.
It’s also worth adding that Oskar isn’t a particularly likable kid. His fears are outlandish, even before 9/11, even going so far as to include a swing set. What 9 year old kid is afraid of a swing set? Oskar’s likability forces me right back into the conflict I mentioned at the beginning of the review. A lot of his behavior is perfectly understandable given the circumstances, having just lost his father after 9/11. But it certainly doesn’t help the film to have an emotionally detached kid running around New York after 9/11 as an indifferent observer of the world around him. Indifferent, that is, unless they can help him in his own task. This is especially true because so many of the people he meets greet him warmly.
Where all of this ends up for me is 3 stars out of 5, a film that came close- not incredibly close, lest you fear my pun- to being very good. But too much baggage weighs it down and prevents it from bigger and better things. If you’ve been avoiding it like I was, don’t. It’s not that bad, not by a long shot. It just isn’t as good as it begs you to believe.