'Extremely Loud and Dangerously Close' Review: Master Manipulation of 9/11 Trauma

For some audiences it will always be too soon for a drama like “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.”

The new movie deals directly with the 9/11 attacks in the most emotional way possible, telling the tale of a young boy who lost his father in the World Trade Center.

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Hollywood has danced around the subject for a full decade, but “Extremely Loud” stops the music cold. It’s manipulative in a manner that should feel offensive, and occasionally does, but director Stephen Daldry (“The Hours”) pulls the strings with a delicacy that makes one forgive the boldness of the enterprise.

But no amount of dexterity can save a final act filled with precious plot resolutions unworthy of even such a flawed presentation.

Young Oskar (Thomas Horn) is still mourning the loss of his father (Tom Hanks) in the 9/11 attacks, but a year after the “worst day” he finds himself starting to forget little things about him. So when Oskar finds a key tucked away in his father’s closet he decides it’s something his father wanted him to discover all along.

After all, father and son have been solving mental puzzles for years before 9/11, and Oskar thinks this is just one last riddle his father wanted him to crack.

Young Horn owns the movie despite the presence of Hanks and Sandra Bullock as Oskar’s beleaguered mum. The child actor handles the daunting assignment with a grace belying his age and experience. The lad’s curious personality – it’s hinted he has Asperger’s syndrome, a lesser form of Autism – means he is wickedly smart, intensely curious and emotionally flat when meeting strangers. Horn narrates shares some very dark, mature thoughts about life and death early in the film that let us know Oscar isn’t an ordinary child.

The early sequences between Horn and Hanks are heart breaking given that we quickly learn of the father’s fate. The two are wonderful together, affecting a relationship so sweet and tender it makes their reality all the more shattering.

Hanks isn’t on screen very much, but you feel his presence in every fame. The Oscar winner evokes paternal love in just a few measured strokes. We don’t need to see him much to understand the consequences of his absence. At times, just hearing his voice on answering machine messages left minutes before his death is enough to make us gulp down our emotions.

Max von Sydow appears later in the film, playing a character representing an easily solved puzzle piece in the narrative. He ends up teaming with Oskar to help him complete his quest, and von Sydow adds another layer of elegance and dignity to a story demanding both. Co-star Sandra Bullock plays Oskar’s mother, and if Hanks isn’t given much screen time she appears even less. That matters since the final scenes hinge on her character, and the connections between Bullock and the audience, let alone with Oskar, haven’t been adequately forged.

Daldry dares to evoke some of the most intimate, and harrowing, images from 9/11 including shots of walls emblazoned with “have you seen me?” posters of those missing after the terrorist attacks. Far more controversial will be how the director summons perhaps the most painful memory of that day, the notion that people leaped out of the burning buildings rather than stay and be consumed by fire.

Audiences may wonder why radical Islam isn’t prominently name-checked here. That may be indefensible on a factual level, but it doesn’t mesh with the story at hand. This is Oskar’s tale, and a boy would likely be far more consumed with his father’s loss than blaming those who took him away.

“Extremely” dares to plumb the depths of our 9/11 mourning process while revealing a child’s healing process in a dutifully complicated fashion. But all the arranged pieces meant to comfort us end up pushing us back from an occasionally powerful film experience.