Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Stephen Daldry
Danny Leigh on Film 2012 about 11 year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), central character of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (ELIC):
“gratingly precocious..hyper-verbal….bag of neuroses….a monster…etc”.
Philip French (Guardian) on the same film:
“reveals itself as a hollow, calculated, manipulative film. It uses the events of 9/11 not as a narrative armature on which to build a structure of ideas relating to an important juncture in modern politics and culture, but as a trapeze on which to perform pleasing emotional displays. Smug and whimsical, its revelations are factitious, its comments on relationships shallow.“
Well dear reader I urge you to see for yourself – because these remarks and those of many others on this film are in my view ill-judged nonsense born of ignorance.
Don’t get me wrong: ELIC isn’t an easy film to watch: Oskar is everything Leigh says: except he is no monster. He is clearly extremely intelligent but seems to have no instinctive social or emotional empathy with others; he struggles to connect with people; bluntly blurts out unkind or emotionally insensitive remarks bewildered at people’s hurt response to them. He is a nest of neuroses, obsessive anxieties about health or safety, carries a tambourine so that he can use the sound to distract his anxieties and fears of almost everything around him in New York: loud noises, old people, traffic etc.
However, how Leigh could discuss this film and make the above judgements completely ignoring what the film and the above patterns of behaviour, make absolutely clear – that Oskar is on the Aspergers/Autism spectrum of behavioural disorder – beggars belief. It’s as if one mocked Kenneth Moore’s performance in Reach For The Sky because he made Douglas Bader walk funny.
The Guardian’s Philp French mentions Aspergers and then ignores its significance for our understanding of Oskar and therefore judgement of the film: as if Oskar has acne and just needs a better cream. French’s remarks are themselves precisely what he accuses the film of being: “smug… with comments on relationships shallow.”
You may not like or admire ELIC, though I immediately admired and on reflection found there was much to like as well; but I defy anyone with an open mind to deny that this is a serious attempt at a difficult, multi-layered, emotionally complex story.
We aren’t invited to sympathise with Oskar’s ‘illness’ we are asked to witness what it means; how it affects his desperate struggle to achieve some kind of normality; to learn how to relate to others so that he may feel some sense of belonging. I am no expert on Aspergers/Autism, or indeed the difference between the two, but the most rudimentary research indicates that many of the patterns of behaviour and challenges Oskar struggles with are typical of those who suffer from this problem in real life. If you don’t want, or even to try, to understand this distressing and in many ways off-putting condition and its effects then, respectfully, don’t go see the film – that is rightly, a personal choice. But for critics to go and to try to comment without taking it into account seems to me unconscionable.
Why Aspergers? Isn’t it over-egging the pudding to add it to a film with the tragedy of 9/11 as a backdrop? Well: if it is hard to imagine how the 1000s of people personally bereaved by 9/11 come to terms with their grief and emotion about their loss; imagine what it must be like for a child who is damaged in a way that makes it difficult to instinctively empathise with others, to feel the force and reality of their pain and distress; to be able to somehowrecognise the outward signs of such emotions but not instinctively share them. Grief, especially in children, has immensely diverse forms of expression, many of them challenging and unattractive. How lost must a child feel, surrounded constantly by the facts of 9/11 and seeing the devastating effect on those around him, who loses in that event the one person who has managed to find a way through his mental barriers to actually connect and relate to him – his own father? Emotionally shallow? Give me a break.
Stephen Daldry makes the emotional issues here absolutely clear in the beginning: we see the odd, slightly obsessive, rigorously structured framework through which Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks) has managed to reach his son. It’s as if their relationship is a shared project with its disciplines and rules within which Oskar feels safe and can open up. We see the patience required of Thomas to maintain this link and its limits when he can’t overcome Oskar’s excessive anxieties – such as in the simple act of playing on a swing.
Oskar, let off early from school on the morning of 9/11 is at home when his dad rings his mother (Sandra Bullock) several times from within the Trade Centre. The full extent of the trauma of this to Oskar only emerges as the film unwinds.
When it is known that Thomas has died; searching through his things, Oskar finds a key in an envelope on the outside of which is written the single word ‘Black’. Just as if he and his father were engaged on a quest together, in exactly the same obsessively structured and rigorously organised way, Oskar resolves to find out what ‘Black’ means and what the key fits. He finds 472 ‘Blacks’ in the NY phone directory and resolves to go and see every one; to ask if they knew his father or anything about the key. Given his social phobia, just as it was only within such a clearly defined, methodical structure that he was able to connect even with his father, so we feel creating the same context for himself is the only way he can go out and meet and question so many strangers – many of whom he alienates with his abruptness.
Early in his quest, at his Grandma’s flat across the street, he meets her lodger: a mute recluse referred to as Grandma’s ‘Renter’ (Max Von Sydow). The Renter can only communicate through notes on a pad he carries. Oskar, forced by this fact to do all the talking, comes to feel safe with this socially unchallenging man and enlists his aid in his quest.
Having a silent supporter offering a kind of protection we feel gives Oskar an echo of the sense of sharing his father used to give him on their projects and quests. In a wonderfully expressive performance Von Sydow manages to convey the sense of worry and responsibility the Renter feels towards this frighteningly vulnerable young man and these imperatives in turn force him to confront his own withdrawn approach to his life.
In the background Oskar’s mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) is coming to terms with her own widow’s grief and bewilderment at how best to help her son with whom she was never able to achieve the unique rapport he had developed with his father – now gone. Not so much shut out as unable to participate, Linda appears to let Oskar go his own way with his quest. But all is not quite what it seems. Again: a loving mother who has lost not just her husband but also the only effective channel through which to reach her son and try to help his suffering. How emotionally shallow is that Mr French?
It needs patience and understanding to like Oskar: as I believe is true of children suffering from this kind of disorder. Unwittingly their behavioural instincts send us all the wrong signals; annoying or frustrating us. We have to learn to understand their inability to experience and perceive emotional relationships in the way that seems natural to us. Only then can we help them in turn to learn to understand what it is that makes their reactions so different to ours.
The mystery of the key is a kind of Hitchcockian McGuffin, it intrigues and maintains our interest but is finally resolved satisfactorily but in an unexpected way. A further twist alters our perception of the narrative in a way that I felt was very touching, offering what we can see as a way for Oskar to continue his struggle with his condition to reach some form of normality that leaves him less isolated and alone. That this hopeful note can be attributed to the love and foresight his father had for him is in my view deeply moving and given the full context, far from sentimental.
Apart from having a really dumb title that I cannot get right however many times I try to remember it; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is in my judgement a sincere attempt to explore important and very real emotional issues. Its use of the 9/11 context is I feel apt, respectful and fully justified.
The barrage of critical opprobrium to which first the book and now the film have been subjected seems to me to be based upon a failure even to acknowledge the nature of Oskar’s character as written and portrayed and therefore the whole point of the film. Much of it also displays a lack of willingness to even try to understand the profound difficulty and distress of children with Aspergers and the challenge it presents to parents and carers trying to help them.
This film fully deserves it recognition by the Academy as a work of artistic aspiration and considerable accomplishment. See it for yourself and decide. It certainly deserves no less than that.