How 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' Handles 9/11 Right

The film shows that universal grief is processed in strange, personal ways

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Here’s what sounds like a recipe for offensiveness: a 9/11 movie centered on a scavenger hunt.

That’s the unusual template for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which opens in limited release on Sunday. And most improbably of all, director Stephen Daldry pulls it off, though, of course, not everyone agrees.

This adaptation of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel depicts the aftermath of the tragedy from the perspective of a child with Asperger’s syndrome, living in his mind and reflecting his view of the world. That makes the picture both a cinematic anomaly and an unprecedented effort in the world of movies about 9/11, a subject that—as Lewis Beale pointed out in the Los Angeles Times—Hollywood regards warily. Though we’ve seen movies about the events of the day (United 93) and portraits of a New York stricken by its fallout (Margaret), Extremely Loud marks the first filmic treatment of the individual story of one of the 3,000-plus kids left parentless that fall morning.

The film embraces the confusion experienced by Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a lonely 9-year-old who lost his dad Thomas (Tom Hanks) in the World Trade Center. Oskar and Thomas used to spend hours discussing vivid imaginary quests to far-away lands, and Thomas sent his son on treasure hunts of sorts around the city. So when Oskar finds a mysterious key in his father’s closet one year after his death, he naturally assumes that it was left there intentionally. A complicated mission to find its lock ensues, much to the perplexed chagrin of Oskar’s distant, grieving mother Linda (Sandra Bullock).

Of course, the story takes leaps of logic in its depiction of Oskar’s citywide search for the key’s proper home. With only one clue—the label “Black”—to guide him, the determined youngster makes a point of visiting every New Yorker with that last name, in the hope that someone might provide an answer.

Oskar’s convoluted mission has angered some critics. “The innocence is shameless,” Time Out New York’s Joshua Rothkopf writes of the concept of framing 9/11 through the prism of “lost children.” The Associated Press’s David Germain deems the story “a cheat, which has nothing to do with overcoming sorrow in the real world, where Sept. 11 happened.”

Yet if there’s one thing the past decade has taught us, it’s that 9/11 was a tragedy experienced by members of every age group and all walks of life. On a local level, there’s not a segment of New York that was left untouched in some way. Extremely Loud isn’t trying to reflect some sort of unifying current of grief; it’s not merely a blank slate upon which the viewer is meant to impose his own feelings.

The narrative, wrapped in the meticulous details of Oskar’s quest and imbued with adventuresome flourishes, is not meant to be taken literally. It is, instead, a citywide snapshot of mourning in its many forms, as seen from the point of view of a troubled young man processing his premature adult feelings in the only way he can.

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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