A bright, socially awkward boy tries to make sense of 9/11 and find some closure with the father he lost on what he calls “the worst day” in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.” The film, based on a Jonathan Safran Foer novel, is a sometimes tearful remembrance of that day and the lives it ended or forever disrupted. And while it flirts with the preciousness that comes with Foer novels (“Everything Is Illuminated”), it is engrossing and emotional in ways no other 9/11 drama has managed.
Oskar (Thomas Horn), our hero and narrator, is a tween who was once tested for Asperger’s Syndrome, but those tests were “inconclusive.” He’s a loner who thinks and thinks and thinks; his sympathetic dad (Tom Hanks) had figured out a way to bring him out of his shell. Dad’s fanciful quests, “reconnaissance expeditions,” send the kid into Central Park in search of New York’s lost “sixth borough,” and the like. Oskar must meet and chat with all sorts of strangers to complete his mission.
But those missions might have come to an end the day his mom (Sandra Bullock) buried “an empty box.” Oskar’s morbid visions of his father tumbling through the air threaten to overwhelm his memories of Dad. Then, he stumbles across a key in an envelope, which he takes as his last expedition, a years-long quest (he can do the math of the search), trying to find that one New Yorker named “Black” who has the lock that key might fit.
Touchingly, every New Yorker he visits has that post-9/11 empathy. All Oskar has to do is say “He was in the building … on 9/11,” and they take him in — talk to him, hug him or, at the very least, cut this pushy know-it-all child some slack.
“Every day is a miracle,” one kind lady tells him.
He charts their addresses, photographs them and creates intricate scrapbooks out of the quest. One (Viola Davis) he meets on the day her husband (Jeffrey Wright) is moving out. Others are old, infirm, rich, poor, part of big families, or testy and alone. His indulgent grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) assists. And her silent renter (Max Von Sydow) pitches in. They’re helping a child who doesn’t even know it cope with the all-consuming fear that 9/11 brought him.
“You can get blown to pieces by people who don’t even know you” is his excuse for never using public transport, for wincing when he sees a plane pass overhead.
Director Stephen Daldry (“The Hours”) is over-reliant on the boy’s narration, something necessitated by his loner status and the nature of the book. Daldry got an insufferable performance out of young Mr. Horn — a onetime “Jeopardy!” champ — and fine work out of Davis, Von Sydow and especially Bullock, who makes us feel the loss, 10 years later.
And Hanks, whose performance is sympathetic in the flashbacks, is even better in scenes that only use his voice — a man, trapped in a doomed tower, leaving voicemail messages so that his family won’t worry.
The mysteries aren’t that mysterious and some may have a hard time embracing its abrasive hero. But “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” doesn’t just use 9/11 as a backdrop and emotional ploy. The event is a protagonist in the film. And there is just enough distance from the event, and just enough heart to this story, to help us all with something a decade hasn’t brought us any closer to understanding.