Stephen Daldry is a very divisive director. His movies are all very acclaimed and are constantly being nominated for awards or at the least they are mentioned as in contention. Even then, in both conversation with my peers and on message boards or comment threads, the mention of his name usually leads to a discussion about the quality of his filmography. "Didn't he make that movie about the boy dancing?" "Wait, that drama about the three women across multiple eras?" "Huh, you mean that holocaust film?" His films are all dealing with such complex material and to try and adapt it and have it cinematically make sense, I'm a huge supporter of his. His adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is as daring and I think as successful as his other works, but it was something that I don't see myself passionately defending. I've mentioned this before, but he makes films that I can only see myself liking and before I'd recommend them to someone, I'd have to get a better idea of their tastes. I mean, last I checked, this movie was hovering around a 50% on Rotten Tomatoes with both audiences and critics.
So what did I like so much about it? Well, to start off, the one thing that I didn't like about it was how we were introduced to the protagonist in the first act. For the first half-hour, I just kep saying, "this kid is so damn weird." I couldn't understand him and I for sure didn't know what to make of him. Was he just very eccentric and hyper? Was he mentally ill? Is he overly-theatrical because the character or the actor is one of those theater-people who scream and make funny faces? Even before the trauma of losing his father, Oskar (Thomas Horn) just seemed off. The result was that I found him annoying and I was unsure of how he made sense of the world. Maybe this was something I should've known going in, but I didn't catch on in the movie until it was mentioned, but the boy has aspergers. After that was said, it actually helped me better understand the context of why Oskar was the way he was.
Once the movie moved past that hurdle of the first half hour, the film became a profound story of grief. Maybe I was innoculated to it all or maybe Oskar's motivations started to make sense when I understood the gap between his social skills and his intelligence. He was no longer awkward and instead he seemed like he was struggling to understand, but he was also scared of his journey and that made him all the more fascinating to me. Having a first-time actor portray the part was a daring move, but for such an unique character, it all somehow worked. Whenever Horn's inexperience showed through, I just thought it was all a part of Oskar's own growing loss of comfort as he went around the city trying to finish one last "game" with his father.
It helps that there are such strong supporting performances. Tom Hanks is lovable as Oskar's father, Sandra Bullock is enitrely believable as his grieving mother, Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright are both somber in a crucial role as a couple with a connection to Oskar's family, and Max Von Sydow steals the show with his inspired, superb, and emotive role as the renter.
Oskar is dealing with so much that after a while, what might be seen as quirkiness is folded into how the character is mourning. He isn't sure how to mourn and that made the film all the more painful to sit through. In this case, I don't mean "pain" as a descriptor for lack of quality, but as an emotional response to the uneasiness of it all as the film explores that very pain in its story. This isn't an easy narrative to digest and it's rather depressing. Where others have looked at this film as an offbeat adventure of a kid roaming through New York City in the wake of a tragedy, I see it as an exploration of the dark reality and relationship that films take on when they address real-world grief.
Many question how films can be made about true events like 9/11 or the Holocaust where the lead character walks out alive and content because how does that provide comfort for the dead? I therefore find myself comparing something like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to Schindler's List. In neither case do I see those examples as ignoring tragedy. Osckar Schindler can barely cope with the fact that it took him so long to do something, but as Itzhak Stern points out at the end of that film, at least he did in fact do something. Oskar Schell discovers that his father wants him to move on and I frankly think that is what the loved ones of anybody who has passed away would want for their friends and family- to live on and persevere. That is why I think Daldry's film is deserving of the praise, mixed or affirmed, that it has received. It doesn't ignore a tragedy, but it instead takes on an attitude and sentiment of grief with great affection. Where one sees simple storytelling devices to offer healing where there is nothing, I see a simple storytelling device that reminds us to offer healing to each other to at least achieve something.