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The Noise of the Tortured Soul

Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close
The Noise of the Tortured Soul

Most of us, I suspect, have faced a situation in which we were too afraid to respond, though we knew we should in some way. When we didn’t, the consequences of our inaction were emotionally devastating. Probably those consequences were not life-changing or the inaction of such importance that someone else’s life was changed forever, but we all know those moments, when “he who hesitates, is lost.” They are moments about life, faith, repentance, and dependence for the Christian; for the person without belief in God, such times are the stuff of despair, or worse.

This movie is about such a moment in the life of a little boy in New York City. How he reacts to the moment takes him on a journey, lasting several months, meeting the great variety of people that make up that city, and learning life along the way. Played by first time actor Thomas Horn, Oskar spends his afternoons—and, presumably much of his weekends—visiting everyone named “Black” in the New York City phone book, since this is the name on an envelope, which he discovers and which held a key, the lock to which he believes contains a message from his father. Central to the plot is that his father, played in flashback by Tom Hanks, was killed in 9/11, but just as important is that Oskar is mildly “odd”, perhaps from Asperger’s, perhaps not (the movie never says). In any case his father has consumed his life and Oskar’s search is a heart-breaking one, made no less so by the entrance of a mysterious “renter”, who enters his life and may or may not be related to him.

If there was ever a movie about relationships, this is it. Oskar’s mother and he have to cope with the death of their beloved and with each other; his grandmother forms an important part of his life; the “renter” sometimes joins Oskar on his trips and only answers by drawing yes or no on his two hands and showing one or the other; the people whom Oskar meets react to him in different ways, some beautifully, some angrily; and even his relationship to the doorman in his apartment building, played by the ever magnificent John Goodman, has a crucial role in Oskar’s development. But the most important relationship Oskar encounters is with himself, and the film explores this as well as any movie ever has for the life of a small boy. Horn, discovered after winning a children’s episode of Jeopardy!, is superb in the role, and the supporting cast, full of seasoned veterans (Sandra Bullock plays the mother; Max von Sydow the “renter”), contributes to an emotionally wrenching, but always thoughtful, screenplay. The director, Stephen Daldry, also did such subtle works as The Hours and The Reader; his is a sure hand in balancing the performances and the shots well enough to keep the attuned viewer going through a relatively slow plot.

Some have felt Extremely Loud to be maudlin and overly teary. I found it to be a grand triumph of story, performance, editing, cinematography, production design and all the other elements that go to make up a film. One of the few films made with its setting in the context of 9/11, the movie achieves that most difficult of accomplishments for a story: it moves the viewer both emotionally and intellectually to appreciate a larger, universal story, while telling a particular, believable one. A masterful work.

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