Keys are to locks as questions are to answers. Traumatic and atrocious acts provoke the affected to look for answers. During The Great Depression had audiences looking for answers on the movie screen, and 9/11 provoked many questions, far too many to list. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close explores the need to look for answers after traumatic events through the perspective of a hyper-sensitive, but acutely aware child who is trying to forgive himself.
Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) had an incredible close relationship to his father Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), and their bonding took the form of expeditions that sent the young Oskar throughout Manhattan to find the lost Sixth Borough. On September 11th, 2001, Thomas had a meeting at the World Trade Center and had left six messages on the Schell home answering machine during the infamous incident. In an attempt to hold on to his memory of his father, Oskar peruses his father’s closet and accidentally knocks over a vase that contains a tiny envelope with a key. Is it another expedition designed by his father?
Oskar exists somewhere between incredibly extraordinary and having Asperger’s Syndrome. He exhibits an intuitive demeanor with no interest in giving up, an attribute that frustrates his mother (Sandra Bullock) greatly. Thomas had a solid understanding of his child’s many strengths but never flinched at Oskar’s flaws. Thus, Thomas pushed Oskar’s intuition further and further, enough to give Oskar the spec of interest to consider that his father may have left the ultimate expedition.
As stated earlier, the key that Oskar obsesses over is a symbol for the answers that he seeks to questions he is not even sure have been posed. He never questions the reasons why the towers were attacked, but he understands that it was simply a coincidence that his father happened to be there that day. Americans looked for all sorts of answers after 9/11, some of which felt that revenge was it. The essential question that Oskar seeked during this film provided answers to questions he never knew existed, all the while the search for the keyhole that corresponded to the key that hung around his neck was a wild goose chase that brought him closer to his family, a fact he did not consider at first. The key also represents the theme of fatherhood that runs rampant throughout the film. Thomas acknowledges that his father fled, but Thomas stepped up to the challenge of pushing his son’s creativity and innovation.
Since Oskar has such a hyper-sensitivity to the world, he takes on a tambourine as a comfort object during his travels. However, the tambourine often times sounds like a rattlesnake’s rattle. Instead of being a warning towards predators, it is Oscka’s signal to the audience that he is insecure in strange places. No matter how scared Oskar is with his tambourine, he treks on with no hesitation. One of the relatively few negative aspects of the film is Oskar’s voice-overs that attempt to explain his thinking at the moment. The moments that these voice-overs exists were unnecessary because the young Thomas Horn’s facial expressions say far more than the voice-overs ever could. An attentive viewer will know exactly what Oskar is thinking after his new friend, The Renter (Max von Sydow), exhibits behavior similar to Oskar’s father, and there is no need for a voice-over to explain that to us. Hanks and Bullock, two of the largest and most recognizable stars in America have roles that do not command or conquer the screen, but add to the rich texture the film requires.
Many critics have accused Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for being Oscar bait. I had expected the same, especially after accusing War Horse of the same baiting and catering to the lowest common denominator. However, I was extremely surprised to find that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was not an attempt to exploit the emotions of one of the darkest days in American history, or as Oskar calls it, The Worst Day. Instead, it is film that gives us the perspective of a child who displays a highly intellectual hyper-sensitivity to the world around him. He hides much of his pain and struggles to forgive himself for a simple act on that fateful day. He is a shy boy who had difficulty reaching out to strangers, but the film gives us a chance to watch him branch out and accept the diversity around him, not just in the people, but all of New York.