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Monday, March 10, 2014

Movie Review - Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen. I watched it on cable, and if it weren’t for the fact that I was too lazy to reach over the sofa cushion and hit the power button on the remote, I would not be writing this review. But I stuck it out to the end and am glad I did, because the ending certainly delivers.

Other than the film, World Trade Center, this movie is the only one I’ve seen that deals with 9/11—I still cannot bring myself to watch United 93. The stories are too sad and the memories of where I was and what I was doing when this tragedy struck are too raw. In particular, I’m still haunted by the image of a handsome young man standing outside the top of the second tower, with flames licking his heels and smoke swirling around him, with nowhere to go but down into death. That was someone’s husband perhaps, someone’s son. Some wife or mother was watching her husband or child dangle on the precipice of destruction. How can this be justified in the mind of that wife or mother? Where is the peace?

This movie deals with that question, opening with a scene where a man is falling from the sky—not in terror or fear—but transcending from a high place to one much lower. Immediately, I knew this 9/11 story would be very different from what I expected.

The setting is New York, and the main character is a little boy, Oskar, whose father (Tom Hanks) dies in one of the twin towers, having left several good-bye voice mail messages on the answering machine. Oskar is sent home early from school and arrives back to his apartment before his mother (Sandra Bullock). Horrified by what he hears in the first several messages, he cannot bring himself to listen to the final one. He hides the answering machine away and replaces it with another identical machine, hoping his mother won’t notice. Oskar can’t bear the fact that his loving father is gone. And yet, his dad’s presence remains with him somehow, leading him on a journey to find a place of peace.

The journey starts with a flashback of a park swing, where Hanks teaches his timid son the joys of swinging high—it starts by pumping the legs until momentum is gained, flying through the air, and then jumping safely to the ground. But Oskar is scared—he doesn’t like heights or being out of control—he doesn’t like the uncertainty of knowing what will happen when he jumps. By now, you may understand why I contemplated turning the movie off. But trust me when I say that all of this pays off in the ending.

As Oskar grieves his father’s death, he ventures through his dad’s things and discovers a collectible blue vase hidden on a closet shelf. When the vase breaks, a key is found in a little envelope bearing the word “Black.” Oskar interprets this as a sign that his father has left him a message and the key unlocks that message. Being a huge fan of scavenger hunts, Oskar goes on an elaborate search for the person with the last name of “Black” who might know the purpose for the key. He starts with the Manhattan phone book and begins making phone calls.

While the notion of a young boy traipsing through New York, knocking on doors of strange people with the last name “Black” may seem far-fetched, it does keep the story moving along. The screenwriters try to justify this bit of fabrication by having Oskar’s mom learn of his plan and visit all of the people ahead of time to tell them what her son is doing and why. That seems even more far-fetched in my opinion, but it is a sweet notion, and doesn’t detract from the power of the ending.

As Oskar’s search lingers, he begins to lose hope. He returns to the swing we have seen in the beginning of the movie and finds a clue wedged underneath the seat planted by his father—it is a folded newspaper clipping with a message circled, encouraging him to never stop searching. Oskar views this as a sign to keep going, but as time goes by and his search leads him nowhere, he becomes even more discouraged. Finally, through happenstance, he turns the clipping over and realizes that it is a phone number that has been circled—the number for the very first person he had called so long ago (Viola Davis). Through her, Oskar comes full circle and discovers the owner of the key. Unfortunately for him, it turns out that it has nothing to do with his dad, but does provides peace for Davis’ estranged husband who seeks closure regarding his own father’s death. The viewer gets the sense that Oskar’s quest will also bring peace and healing to their marriage.

 During the search, Oskar befriends an old, mute man (Max Von Sydow) who is staying with his grandmother. The man hasn’t spoken since a childhood trauma during World War II and communicates only through written notes and messages scrawled on his hands. He agrees to accompany Oskar on his quest to discover the owner of the key, and ironically, helps Oskar overcome some of his fears. Eventually, Oskar comes to discover that this man is his grandfather, a man who had abandoned his family years ago because of the pain of having lost his parents during the war.

The movie ends with the touching scene that ties the story together. Through Oskar’s wild and elaborate scavenger hunt, others (like his grandfather) have come to know a peace and acceptance of their loss. But what about Oskar? The viewer isn’t sure until we see a scrapbook he has made of all the people he met during his quest, entitled, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." As he turns the last page of the scrapbook, we see a moveable animation of a man’s body falling from the ground back up into a tall, burning building. It is the body of his father who died so tragically on 9/11. And yet, to Oskar, his father isn’t lost, after all—his memory is still very much alive. Oskar has finally found the peace he’s been looking for for so long.

If just one person who lost a loved one on 9/11—or who has lost a loved one through any other tragedy—watches this movie and receives a bit of peace over how or why it happened, then the film has done its job. I have never lost a family member in that way, but I have witnessed the torment of others who suffer the unbearable loss of a spouse, parent, or child. There are no adequate answers for why these things happen and what could have been done differently to change the outcome. There never is an answer that satisfies, other than an acceptance of the situation with a sense of peace. For those who are born again in the Lord Jesus Christ, that peace comes in knowing that somehow God will make all things work together for our good. It takes an act of steadfast faith to stand firm in this conviction, no matter the horror of the circumstances.

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