A journey through grief and New York

January 19, 2012

According to the “seven stages of grief” theory, dealing with loss typically means journeying through different emotions—from shock and denial to pain and guilt—experienced before acceptance. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, though, nine-year-old Oskar Schell’s own path is anything but linear. Looking through Oskar’s eyes, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close director Stephen Daldry deftly handles this fragile material and crafts a cinematic adaptation true to Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel. Oskar, the film’s precocious protagonist, is forced to grapple with issues of death and grief beyond his comprehension after his father tragically dies in the 9/11 attacks. An eccentric boy with an idiosyncratic love for random facts and scavenger hunts, Oskar creates his own personal quest upon finding a mysterious key among his father’s possessions.

The nine-year old challenges us to see the futility of rote grieving ceremonies, feeling the aftermath of 9/11 with full force. He erupts in anger as he watches his father’s empty casket being buried, protesting the irrationality of the ceremony. His relationship with his grief-stricken mother, played with precision by Sandra Bullock, grows particularly strained. Haunted by images of a falling man, Oskar processes death in a fundamentally different way than the adults surrounding him, creating a poignant portrait of grief.

Eric Roth’s screenplay tactfully weaves scenes of the attack’s aftermath with Oskar’s memories of his father, played by an easygoing Tom Hanks. Past and present find themselves joined through the emotional atmosphere of the flashbacks, creating an even storytelling. Recollections of the scavenger hunts Oskar’s father sent him on quickly underscore the significance of clues and objects in the film, gracefully transitioning into Oskar’s own discovery of a mysterious key in his father’s closet. Simply labeled “black,” this key propels Oskar onto an ambitious quest to find the lock it opens, on which he embarks by visiting every person with the name “Black” in New York.

Seeing the world from Oskar’s unique perspective is no walk in Central Park. With more than a few hints of Asperger’s, his omnipresent narrative ranges from a torrent of encyclopedia facts to spurts of helpless anger. As he goes forth on his ambitious journey, cinematographer Chris Menges’s depiction of the city mirrors Oskar’s own emotional landscape, delicately avoiding heavy-handedness. While at times they are conveyed simply as an overwhelming flood of noise, Oskar’s innermost thoughts don’t overwhelm, and at times Menges portrays the boy’s mind as a simple, serene backdrop to the film.

With childlike innocence, Oskar’s search takes him through the city and onto the doorsteps of countless New Yorkers. His encounters with various people, including an unexpected guide played with characteristic strength by Viola Davis—contribute to the formation of a general portrait of grief in all its individual manifestations. As he forms tentative relationships with more people, especially a mute character played by Max von Syndow, Oskar comes progressively closer to being able to share his own story.

While his quest does not end with the definitive answer he had hoped for, it is the inevitable impetus for Oskar’s development. His understanding of the world, originally based on a foundation of facts and figures, is toppled by the senselessness of profound tragedy. As he eventually comes to terms with this reality, he becomes both more expressive and better able to face his fears.

Unfortunately, the film version of his path to acceptance comes with a contrived conclusiveness and saccharine ending that the novel tactfully avoids. However, even this ending treats the experience of grief from Oskar’s childlike point of view. This sentimentality can be as cringe-inducing as Oskar’s temper tantrums, but it is the natural byproduct of his own innocent viewpoint. The events of 9/11 have been extensively analyzed, theorized, and politicized, but it is ultimately a nine-year-old child who reminds us how to grieve.


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