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 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, is a sometimes tearful remembrance of that day and the lives it ended or forever disrupted. It flirts with the typical preciousness of Foer's novels, but it is engrossing and emotional in ways no other 9/11 drama has managed.
Our hero and narrator, Oskar (Thomas Horn), is a tween who was once tested for Asperger's syndrome. 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 ended 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 yearslong 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 of the quest. He meets one (Viola Davis) on the day her husband (Jeffrey Wright) is moving out. Others are old, infirm, rich, poor, in big families, or testy and alone. His indulgent grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) assists. Her silent renter (Max Von Sydow) pitches in. They're helping a child who doesn't know how to cope with the 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 a plane passes 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 Horn — a onetime Jeopardy! Kids Week 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 use only his voice: a man, trapped in a doomed tower, leaving voice-mail messages so his family won't worry.
The mysteries aren't that mysterious, and some people might have a hard time embracing its abrasive hero. But Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close doesn't use 9/11 just as a backdrop and emotional ploy. The event is a protagonist. And there is just enough distance from the event, and just enough heart to this story, to help us all with something that a decade hasn't brought us any closer to understanding.