Saturday, April 21, 2012

Review of 9/11 film Extremely Loud and Up Close

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Here is the review for the movie “Extremely Loud and Up Close.”

Extremely Loud and Up Close
Last year was the 10th anniversary and they had to come, the Hollywood gaze settling on the shock of 9/11 and the horror of the aftermath.

In “Extremely Loud and Up Close,” the tragedy that is the twin towers is viewed through the eyes of 9 year old, Oskar Schnell as he struggles to make sense of the death of his father. Threads of further mystery are woven into the plot line, driven by the key Oskar finds in his fathers’ jacket and the unexplained appearance of The Renter, suddenly living with Oskar’s grandmother in a nearby apartment.

The movie, adapted for the screen by Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), is based on a novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is directed by Stephen Daldry. Each of his previous movies (“Billy Elliot,” “The Hours,” “The Reader”) gained nomination for the Academy Awards. “Extremely Loud and Up Close” was no exception.

Despite the accolades, the movie struggles. Perhaps it is simply because we know the ending. A similarity would be the Jesus movie genre. How to generate tension when we all know what happens, whether death and resurrection in a Jesus movie, or shock and grief in the aftermath of the Twin Towers?

Perhaps it is because the metaphors are so cliche – the vase shattering on the first anniversary, the key triggering a search both physical and psychological, the answerphone unblinking in its silent reproach.

Perhaps it is because at times, the plot seems less than believable. How can a child so young wander so easily all over New York? How can his mother find the time to work, to mother and to tread ahead of him? Why, really, can The Renter not speak?

A saving grace is the cast. Thomas Horn is sensational as Oskar Schell, mildly autistic, highly imaginative, caught in a trauma not his making. So also is Max Von Sydow as The Renter, so remotely human and Tom Hanks as the creatively engaging father.

The movie employs the zoom lens, wanting us to be up close, to focus on one child and one family. It means that every emotion is played extremely loud, evoked in the montages of bodies falling and sidewalk shrines awash with people grieving. It makes the film feel like pure opportunism, a commercial piggybacking on human tragedy.

In being extremely close, what inevitably gets lost is perspective. The focus on one story obscure the unique grief that surrounds the other 2,594 who died at the World Trade Centre. The focus on New York overlooks the many Iraqi children who now wander their bombed out streets looking for their dead parents. Oskar’s mental health, his struggles with autism, are turned into comedy simply to keep the tragedy light.

In the midst of these failings, a credible theology of grief is presented. Oskar’s self-harm is believably palpable, as is Linda Schell’s patient acceptance of Oskar’s unthinking, tearful anger. Time can heal, but only when the cycles of guilt, shame, anger are engaged, up close and extremely loud.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Director of Missiology, Uniting College, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 09:56 AM

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