Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is extremely well done ... and incredibly effective. The acting, pacing, and massively large life questions posed within keep the film hurtling forward, building layer upon layer, first with waves of sadness, then joy, until you can't help but admire the overall execution. This was no sure thing, as many of the subjects, when considered broadly, tilt awkwardly toward sentimentality, but Extremely Loud stays fully aloft. Every year we get a few of these, the ones that "matter," and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is one of those films, the type that matters, though it's a difficult watch, and potentially upsetting to an audience.
Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks are married, and they have a son named Oskar, played with verve by young actor Thomas Horn. Oskar is an extremely curious boy -- you'd likely call him "precocious" if you were watching Annie. He sees the world through a prism of uber-intelligence masked by an utter confusion about human emotions. He's prone to angry outbursts when life doesn't fit his logical standards, but his father (Hanks) keeps roping him back to a state of normalcy through a series of planned adventures he calls "reconnaissance expeditions." These missions serve to get Oskar out of the house and interacting with the community, a skill his father knows he'll need to cultivate to help young Oskar relate to the world at large.
The film begins with Oskar ruminating on death, and the reason he's doing so will become apparent as the story progresses. He's a youngster who is all rough edges, tough on the sensibilities, not gifted with an ounce of tact, and that was before something terrible happened to him. The film refers to it as the "worst day," though to say more on this front would undermine the narrative heft. Let's just say it was a bad day, and Oskar and his family are left picking up the pieces.
From these ashes, Oskar begins his most demanding quest yet, trying to find the lock for a key he's found, an impossible and daunting task in a city of millions. He breaks down the task scientifically, and he's aided along the way by the people he befriends. Notable performances can be found here from Viola Davis and Max von Sydow; they take in young Oskar and try to impart a few life lessons along his journey. Throughout the running time of the film, the "weight" of people is routinely considered, not their physical weight, but the emotional toll we all exact on each other.
The score, haunting, conveys the sense of dread that pervades. Thankfully, it's not the same depression found in director Stephen Daldry's previous work, The Reader, where the point seemed to be that there isn't a point at all. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has a point, but even more importantly it has chemistry. Accolades must be given to Bullock and Horn, as their mother-son relationship is often tumultuous and jarring ... but entirely moving.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is as much of a quest as it is a continually asked question, though some are never adequately answered, and people thrive and fail in a manner that reflects the world we live in, as great art must. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close's greatest strength is that it prods and provokes, never relenting, protagonist voice-overs and "quest" questions spurring us on to even greater depths of introspection. The imagery is periodically (and purposefully) horrific, terrible things are witnessed and heard, moments of loss are punctuated and overcome by the even greater strength of the ties that bind us together as a culture. The film's central message -- that we've got to try to be good to each other, and that we're all slightly lost -- evokes a sort of everyman earnestness that's good for the soul. A treatise on faith and grief, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is an exceptional film.