Set in New York City during the painful days following the 9/11 attack, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” opens a window to the struggle and pain the tragedy inflicted on a city and nation through the impact on a family of two who used to be a family of three. One could say the Schell family dealt with the loss in a special way because they were a family with special needs, but the truth is each family who lost loved ones on 9/11, and all families who lose loved ones in unexpected or unexplainable ways, deal with the loss in their own unique ways. The film is full of compelling performances, especially Thomas Horn who plays Oskar Schell, a preteen boy on the high functioning end of the Autism spectrum. Oskar adored his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) who was a devoted to his son, and whose patience and creativity were helping Oskar overcome his fears and social challenges as well as channel his gifts and talents. All that ended, or so it seemed, on 9/11 when Thomas was killed in one of the WTC towers.
“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is a film that requires extra attention and patience from viewers, but it pays off for those with eyes to see, ears to hear, and an open mind to think. That so many critics don’t have such eyes or ears is unsettling and telling. While the film has its flaws, it’s too long and in some places too slow, the harshest criticism was directed toward Oskar’s character as is presented in a review below.
The overarching problem is obvious: while Oskar may have been a charming narrator in Foer’s intentionally rambling novel – and even that’s up for debate – on screen he’s an almighty nuisance, who chunters on endlessly and is routinely vile towards his grieving mother, played with many a pained look by Sandra Bullock (“I wish you had died in that building instead of Dad,” he tells her flatly). He’s almost equally unpleasant to a kindly, mute old man who joins him on his adventure (Max von Sydow, Oscar-nominated and the best thing here), and who also turns out to have a connection to Oskar’s father. Disastrously, neither Daldry nor his screenwriter Eric Roth seem to have considered this, and the results are grating in the extreme. Even the details rankle: Oskar carries a tambourine everywhere because he finds it soothing, but after almost two hours of its noisy jangling, viewers will almost certainly beg to differ. Robbie Collin review for the Telegraph February 16, 2012
These reviews reflect a tremendous societal misunderstanding of persons on the high functioning end of the Autism spectrum. As with any developmental disorder, each person has specific challenges, some of which are very apparent and others less noticeable. Those who are higher functioning, where their condition is not as overt, are often judged to be weird, obnoxious, or rudely self-centered rather than persons who perceive and react to the world in a different way. The harsh criticisms of the Oskar, and Horn’s portrayal, reflect societal blindness of, and shine a light on, the challenges many with high function Autism face. Horn’s portrayal is in fact spot on for a child who has Asperger’s. Oskar refuses to accept the diagnosis of Asperger’s, describing the testing as “inconclusive” even though he has more than enough manifestations to warrant such a diagnosis. Oskar’s reaction to the loss of his father in such an illogically unanswerable way is very plausible for a child who experiences the world strictly as black or white, where everything must be logical, and there is always an answer. Thomas’s mystery adventure games, including the ultimate final challenge, reflect his determination to help Oskar address his social challenges and channel his obvious strengths and gifts in order to succeed in a world that will unfairly judge him and exceed the limitations much of society will place upon him.
“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” also has something to show and say to the Church, if it has eyes to see and ears to hear. With the explosion of developmentally delayed children, youth, and soon, as these children age, an abundance of developmentally challenged adults, churches must use creative ways to teach and engage persons who interact with the world in unconventional ways. As Thomas used unconventional, experiential ways to reach, engage, and equip Oskar, so churches must make the effort to find ways to engage persons who experience the world differently. Such imagination and openness to new ways of teaching and proclaiming the Gospel to developmentally delayed children would also serve churches well in finding effective ways to reach those who could be described as developmentally delayed in their faith life and relationship with God and for whom traditional ways of reaching, teaching, and worshipping are often not effective. Given declines in church membership and involvement across the board, such “developmental faith delay” could be as epidemic as Autism and other developmental disorders, and the Church should follow the example of Oskar’s father Thomas in finding ways to truly reach those who perceive God and faith in different ways.
Theologically, the film reflects Paul’s teaching in Romans 8 of God working for good in all things, even the evil that was 9/11, as well as echoing the voice of Isaiah, “by his wounds, we are healed.” Many of the film’s characters receive healing through the suffering of Thomas, whose life was lost, and Oskar, whose suffering, struggles, and determination to understand that which could not be understood, led others to healing, wholeness and reconciliation. Unlike the film’s title, these lessons and perspectives in life and faith are rarely loud or incredibly obvious, but they are around us if we, as Oskar, have eyes to see and ears to hear.