Why ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ only whimpered at a distance
I went into this movie with a great deal of anticipation after being wowed by the trailer; a lean and emotionally charged montage of a young boy’s epic journey around New York, set to the pulse-thumping, heart-string twanging strains of U2′s ‘Where the Streets have No Name’. Even from that trailer alone I was getting choked up. The very notion of it, this hopeless but hopeful quest, the urgency the boy addresses it with, the uniting of all these various people through loss and the promise of regrowth- seemed a no-fail winner.
But it failed. I’ll explain why shortly.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tells the story of the near-Aspergic boy Oskar Schell, whose father (Tom Hanks) handled his social awkwardness by setting him fantastic quests ranging the breadth of New York that forced him to get out and interact with people (find the fictional lost 6th borough! how? *shoulder shrug*). Then Tom Hanks dies in the 9/11 bombing, and Oskar goes mental. He withdraws intensely from his mother (Sandra Bullock) and holes up in a secret cupboard he has converted into a shrine for his lost father, morbidly listening again and again to the last 6 answering machine messages he left from within the Twin Towers. At some point he tells his mother “I wish you’d died instead of him”.
Ouch. But that is not all. One day Oskar finds a mysterious vase in his father’s walk-in closet, with a mysterious key inside, with the mysterious word ‘Black’ on the outside. He decides this is (or could be) just another of his father’s quests, and sets out to hunt down all the people named ‘Black’ in New York and ask them if they knew his father.
His mom lets him go. For a while he hooks up with an old chap who won’t speak (Max von Syddow) who may/may not be his estranged grandfather. There is lots of tambourine rattling (Oskar carries it with him to give himself confidence), number recounting (Oskar is a bit OCD about numbers), screechy 9/11 panic soundscapes filled with stress-inducing crashes, sirens, and ringing phones, all to the grunting and creaking overtures of an over-labored, over-written plot (by Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth and novelist Jonathan Safram Foer) that strain cloyingly to squeeze every last drop of manufactured, foisted, hugely coincidental, near sadistic sentiment out of the audience.
Ugh. So, yes, I didn’t like that. Now I will explain some reasons why, and therefore why it failed.
** SPOILERS **
There are many problems. I will start with one presented by the trailer. The trailer brings together this montage of many different people coming together with a common purpose (in one shot all reaching out to touch and bless Oskar’s head) with powerful music playing behind. This is what is moving. We can see the same effect in the utterly un-connected to any storyline YouTube sensation of Matt Harding who danced around the world with large groups of strangers. That video is moving for its sense of coming together and the soaring music. See here if you care to-
Now you can compare that to the trailer for Extremely Loud. The power comes from essentially the same kind of tactic- fast-track images of faces with powerful music and motion. See here-
The trouble is, these pure moments of uplifting coming-together are missing from the film. Or at the least, they are presented in nowhere near as powerful and visceral a fashion as in the trailer. There are hints of them, but they are spread out, watered down, and overshadowed by the weight of coincidental schmaltzy goop that the story gimmicks ladle over them.
What schmaltzy goop and gimmicks? Very well I will tell you.
There are many artificial gimmicks going on in this story- which have led lots of reviewers to call the movie ‘contrived’. Here I will name them.
1- SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5 / SIXTH SENSE GIMMICK
The Kurt Vonnegut book Slaughterhouse 5 tells the harrowing tale of the fire-bombing of Dresden, interspersed by a slow progression of flashbacks set in the belly of a transport plane raked by anti-aircraft fire. Throughout the book these flashbacks fill us with a sense of foreboding about one sick young soldier who has buried himself in flak jackets in the plane’s belly. Is he in bad shock? He’s super pale. The flashbacks keep on nudging and winking us through these scenes until at last, like some gory rose finally unpetalling for our delectation, we learn the true horror at the heart of his situation.
He has been shot by anit-aircraft fire, and his guts are bubbling up through his stomach. He has covered himself with the flak jackets to hide the injury. His fellow soldiers have been telling him everything is OK, but of course by the end he’s dead. Ugh. This is war. you didn’t see that coming, did you?
In Slaughterhouse 5, I was impressed by this device. I was not impressed by it in ‘Extremely Loud…’, though it is used in much the same fashion. Perhaps because it relied upon information being artificially withheld from the audience, for the sole purpose of giving us that bloody-rose unpetalling experience near the movie’s climax. I find that very tasteless. I am not some pain-gourmet come to be badgered and bludgeoned and teased by a movie before the final pain is shown to me like a special and nurtured treat. Ugh.
In this movie, it is the phone calls Tom Hanks made to his son Oskar from the burning buildings. The final revelation- which we should have seen from the off, since we were entirely in Oskar’s POV for most of this bit- was that he was actually in the house when his father called for the final time, but did not have the strength to pick up the phone.
I can buy that. That explains everything about why Oskar was freaking out. How could he forgive himself, as his father called out again and again “are you there?”
It’s horrific, on a par with the same strategy that author Safran-Foer used in his debut novel ‘Everything is Illuminated’, in which the final unbudding gory rose is the story of a Jewish father who attempted to defy the Nazis by refusing to renounce his faith. We are given the true horror of that in stages too- as though it were bits of torture-porn candy scattered through the forest to lead us to the Gingerbread house. The true horror is that he won’t renounce his faith when they shoot his pregnant daughter in the stomach, but he will renounce it when they say they won’t shoot her in the head, and end her awful screaming, unless he does so.
It is a manipulative gimmick. Sure, it has some power when we learn what the true horror was. It adds a Sixth Sense-like new perspective that helps us understand why Oskar was so freaked out. But, it earned my resentment for doing it that way. It was utterly unnatural. Open with that story, that horror, and you would have me on Oskar’s side far more fiercely than anything else in the movie offered.
Rather, by shutting us out of this suffering, the movie literally shuts us out of Oskar’s experience. We can’t get into his head, or even feel his pain as though it were our own. We are merely spectators, sitting there like Alex in A Clockwork Orange with our eyes strapped open, waiting to be fed the gross morsels the movie doles out.
SOLUTION- Put the movie back into its natural order, and let us see events as Oskar does. Let us in on his pain from the start, and instead of gimmicks in place of a story, frame a proper story that arcs from low to up again, and the battle required. It could even be done with existing footage, reshuffled.
2- MIRACULOUS QUEST RESOLUTIONS
Oskar is on numerous quests at the same time in this movie. a, the active quest, is spurred by the found key and the name ‘Black’, is to find the person called Black who knows something about his father. b, The quest in the back of his mind is the last one his father consciously set him- to find the fictional 6th borough of New York. c, a third quest, is less self-conscious but still articulated by Oskar (in one of countless breathy and annoying voice-overs), is to find a way to move on past his father’s death. d, are other more vague quests involve getting over his fears- mostly to do with terrorists and places reminiscent of the Twin Towers, and reconnecting with his mom.
How many of these quests can we expect full and satisfying closure on? For it to be satisfying, it has to feel realistic, and not ridiculously coincidental (even miraculous). Is it even possible for all these quests to find closure? Would that even be desirable? What life lessons do we learn if all our sought-for desires come true? Surely that would be a utopia our ‘primitive minds would go mad trying to wake up from’ (The Matrix).
But the movie resolves them all. With utmost attempt at tearful solemnity, it tries to close them all.
a- the KEY, is resolved by Oskar finding the guy who the key belonged to (who also happens to be the estranged husband of the very first ‘Black’ he visited, coincidence #1), after finding a randomly circled number on a piece of paper (coincidence #2). I can imagine this is possible. But the chances that this Black would have some sorrowful tale of his own regarding a need for the key are astronomical (coincidence #3). But he does. The key was left by his father in his will, to open a safety deposit box, with a final message in it. For him to get his father’s final words, he needs the key, which bears only his last name on its packet.
His last name, what? Would your father leave you a key with your shared last name on it? What would that even mean? Surely it would have your first name? And if it was a note he wanted you to have, then why leave a key at all, why not just leave the item? Like the whole plot of ‘Salt’ it only exists to further itself, and get Oskar on his quest (coincidence #4)
b- the 6th borough, is resolved when Oskar stumbles randomly upon a note hidden in Central Park by his father, congratulating him for finding the 6th borough- even though he hasn’t. Coincidence #5. Some may say that since his father made a show of pointing out the hiding place earlier, for another reason, this resolution is earned. Nonsense. It is a total flight of luck that Oskar finds the note, since he has not solved his father’s quest at all.
c- move on, is resolved when Oskar learns his mom has been following his hunt to find the Blacks all along, and in a very real sense was ‘with him’ at every stage, just like we were with Bastion as he stole the book from the bookstore in Never Ending Story. She has shared his adventures, experienced New York the same way he has, and through this experience they have bonded, and found a way forward.
I actually totally buy this one. This is the proper resolution, the only one we need, and the only one that works. He reconnects with his mom and the world. At this point I expected to see the trailer montage more powerfully revisited- in some kind of grand Blacks reunion party to be held in Central Park, a kind of hopeful and happy funeral to mirror the miserable one at the start, where Oskar riled loudly that they were burying an empty box.
I actually really expected to see this scene. I needed it. Instead, Oskar found his dad’s secret note. Silly. The wrong emotional pay-off. We needed to move forwards then, not backwards.
d- get over fears, a large portion of which are helped along by the air-dropping of the mysterious possible grandfather figure, who kookily won’t speak (a nod to Safram-Foer’s Slaughterhouse 5 love is that this old silent man experienced the bombing of Dresden), but will urge him to heal and man up (by riding the subway, for example). These may be some of the best bits of the film, but they are undoubtedly Deus ex Machina, and therefore coincidence #6.
SOLUTION- So where does this leave us? Well, with a clear path to fixing the movie. It’s far too long anyway. After we’ve straightened the narrative out (as earlier described), we need to cut out resolutions to a and b. Leave them unanswered, which makes Oskar feel like crashing to earth with misery. Then just when his whole hunt seems most hopeless, we bring in climax c. His mom was there for him throughout, the Blacks he met were real, and we close out with a big party of them all, a reunion, and Max making some friends, and looking at happy photos of his dad, alongside all the other victims those families lost, and feeling like he’s moved on.
If you need the grandfather of part d, we can handle that too, now we’ve cut a and b. There’s room for a little coincidence again.
To read more and how to fix it (ahtfi) story articles- go here.