Oskar Schell is on a quest. The boy has found a key belonging to his father, who perished in the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. The key was in a small envelope on which the word “Black” was written and Oskar believes, if he can just find the lock to which the key belongs, he will discover a secret message from his dead dad.
He spends long months traveling far and wide across New York City’s five boroughs, methodically tracking down persons named Black, hoping to find the one who will know where the key belongs and Oskar’s father’s connection to it.
That’s the basic plot of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” a moving drama about one boy’s efforts to make sense of the senselessness of that awful day 10 years ago.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel of the same name, upon which the movie is based, was 368 pages long. It was filled with conspicuous wordplay, pictures, typographical illustrations and stories within stories about other epic horrors. It was a showy and sometimes excessive display of individual authorial cleverness anchored in a collective tragedy.
The movie version, directed by Stephen Daldry (“The Reader”) and with a screenplay by Eric Roth, wisely streamlines Foer’s story, concentrating on Oskar (Thomas Horn) and his search and dropping the gimmicks.
Oskar is an odd enough kid as is, precocious and whip smart but socially ill at ease. It’s more than likely that he’s somewhere on the Asperger’s Syndrome spectrum, though he informs us that tests proved inconclusive. Put it this way: He carries a tambourine with him when he ventures out into the world, finding that its jingle allays his debilitating anxieties.
His father (Tom Hanks), a jeweler, encouraged Oskar’s quirky interests, organizing father-son treasure hunts and expeditions around the city. Oskar approaches his hunt for the key with the same methodical fervor. As he works his way from Black to Black, he discovers that those bearing the name cross all racial, ethnic and economic lines but that almost to a man (and woman), they treat him with kindness and understanding.
How one reacts to “Extremely Loud” will likely have much to do with how one regards the eccentric performance of newcomer Horn as Oskar. He yells many of his lines, is over-emphatic, and walks with a swift, purposeful stride. I found him impressive and effective -- I know kids just like this -- but my companion at a screening found him irritating and off-putting.
The adult performers, in what are supporting roles, do especially well. Hanks brings just the right note of spirited understanding to the father, Sandra Bullock beautifully underplays Oskar’s grieving mother, and Max von Sydow is a wonder as a mute older man whom Oskar befriends.
In the end, the movie is about healing and coming to understand that some things can’t be explained. It explains that beautifully.