After making a name for himself with the sleeper hit and multiple Oscar nominee Billy Elliot, director Stephen Daldry has focused on sober, serious-minded adaptations of highly regarded modern novels. The Hours and The Reader each scored Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, and they garnered Best Actress trophies for Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet, respectively. With that kind of pedigree, it's not surprising to see Daldry at the helm of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the big-screen adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel about the emotional fallout from 9/11 -- the big emotions and painful subject matter are what Daldry has built his career on.
The movie stars youngster Thomas Horn, making his film debut, as Oskar Schell, a quirky, high-functioning autistic nine-year-old who is wracked with grief after the death of his father (Tom Hanks) in the World Trade Center attacks. Oskar felt that his dad was the only person who understood him, and after finding a key in his father's belongings, he sets off to solve the mystery of what it opens; eventually, he becomes convinced that it will reveal something important his father wanted to tell him. His journey prompts him to visit dozens of strangers in New York City, including a divorcing couple (Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright) and an elderly renter (Max Von Sydow) living near his grandmother. During his ongoing search, Oskar also struggles with the belief that his mother (Sandra Bullock) doesn't understand what he's feeling.
To Daldry's credit, he's good at treating fraught emotions with sensitivity. The film could slip into shamelessly manipulative melodrama at almost any moment, and while he's certainly trying to wring tears from the viewers, he isn't being cynical about it -- Daldry seems as in need of a good cry as the audience.
Daldry also benefits from good work from a pretty terrific cast. Horn has a difficult role that's more demanding than what most child actors ever face: He has to portray Oskar's detached, Asperger-like qualities (he's so precocious and odd that he's close to being a Wes Anderson creation), as well as emote the vulnerability and fear the character faces, and for the most part he pulls it off. He gets strong support from Bullock -- they have a huge fight about halfway through the movie that underscores that for all his quirkiness, Oskar is in real pain. And Bullock herself actually has the best scene in the movie, a final phone call with her husband as he's trapped at the top of one of the Twin Towers.
But it's Max Von Sydow as the mysterious renter who steals every scene he's in. The character never speaks, and while Von Sydow doesn't devolve into silent-film mugging, his craggy face is still remarkably expressive. He savors the film's funniest scene, in which he annoys a rude person by ringing her doorbell, giving the audience some much-needed levity to balance out the rest of the film.
The biggest problem with the movie is the central mystery of what the key opens. It turns out to be a storytelling device that's better in theory than in reality -- it's the kind of literary trope that works in a book, but strains credulity in a movie. It's a metaphor that diminishes in power in this setting, but the movie still works better than it should thanks to the actors and the sensitivity Daldry brings to the material. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close assumes an importance it doesn't live up to, but that doesn't mean it's without merit.