At what point do you start to wonder if a particular day might be the worst of your life? Maybe you realize it gradually over the course of an especially sour afternoon as things just keep going wrong. That is what happens in Roman Polanski’s Carnage, and when the Kate Winslet character says at the end that it has been the worst day of her life, what she means is that the day and its accumulation of indignities has finally worn her down.
On the other hand, sometimes it only takes a split-second for a fine, normal, nothing day to become “the worst day.” That is what Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close calls it: “the worst day.” September 11. The day that his father, Thomas, is killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. We should never, ever forget what Joan Didion says: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.”
Oskar is a wise child. Why do I think to describe him that way? Well, to start with, the Glass children in the stories of J.D. Salinger appeared on a game show called It’s a Wise Child, and Oskar is very much like them. The critic Walter Kirn described Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel (which I have not read) as “a conscious homage to the Gotham wise-child genre.” So is the movie. In fact, the actor who plays Oskar, Thomas Horn, was cast after the moviemakers saw him on Jeopardy! This irony aside, Horn gives his character the right bossy demeanor— Oskar is used to getting his way. His curiosity is indulged by his father (played by Tom Hanks in a series of short memories), who devises quests for him, such as finding New York’s “sixth borough.”
After his father dies, Oskar comes up with an excuse for one more “reconnaissance mission.” It starts with a key of unknown origin
(discovered by Oskar by accident when he tips over and shatters a blue vase) and it ends… well, we do not know when or where or if it will end. Oskar has a gift for sleuthing, but he does not kid himself into thinking that solving the puzzle behind the key is important in itself. What is important is that as long as he is searching, he is thinking of his father.
During Oskar’s journey, a great many people (most of them with the surname “Black”) come into his orbit, including a hulking, silent Swede (Max von Sydow) who might be his grandfather and is certainly a kindred spirit. Oskar also sees his glorious city from every angle. As filmed by director Stephen Daldry and cameraman Chris Menges, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is one of the great New York movies. It resembles The World of Henry Orient, with precocious young New Yorkers darting around the city unencumbered by adult supervision.
Daldry directs like a master—he is unafraid to go for bold effects, such as the montage sequence illustrating the many things Oskar is “panicky” about since the tragedy. The director is conscious of his predecessors. The freeze frame of Oskar at the end of the picture is meant, I think, to evoke the last shot of The 400 Blows. And when Oskar retreats to underneath his parents’ bed on “the worst day,” we are reminded of the beginning of Fanny and Alexander—another movie about a son losing a father too, too soon.
The movie gets the more pedestrian aspects of childhood right, too. Daldry captures what it is like to crack open your door late at night, let in a ray of light from the hall, and overhear the murmurings of grownups who think you are fast asleep. An only child, Oskar does a lot of eavesdropping on his parents (his mother, Linda, is played by Sandra Bullock), but he has an uncommon comprehension of what he overhears and a gift for remembering it. At one point, more than a year after September 11, he tells his mother something his father
said to him about her: “I really love your mother. She’s such a good girl.” It is unbearably moving that Oskar recalls the precise words his father used. A more average kid—a less wise child—would have misremembered the remark. It would have become something treacly like, “I love mom.”
I wonder if there is anything more meaningful than to tell someone you love that someone they lost loved them.
Throughout the movie, I worried that Sandra Bullock was being forgotten. There was so much about Oskar and Thomas and the cagey Swede, but relatively little about Linda. I found myself asking why Oskar was spending more time with strangers than with her or why he didn’t tell her about the key he found. She might, after all, know something about it.
Linda is, plainly, less of a pal to Oskar than Thomas was, but the simple truth is that Sandra Bullock gives the movie its pulse. After Oskar’s journey ends, amounting to a lot of sound and fury and signifying nothing (as far as he is concerned), his mother is there waiting for him, and the feeling is much as it is at the end of, say, Meet Me in St. Louis, when the family decides to stay there. It is home, sweet home. But it turns out that she has been with Oskar all along. She is no Tiger Mother, but she checked out every place he planned to visit and every person he planned to see. “Did you think I would ever let you out of my sights?” she asks, and we feel ashamed for wondering if she had.
It is a great portrait of motherhood. The movie may seem all gilded surfaces, but the truths it contains are straightforward, and so many of them spring from Bullock’s quiet, easy performance. You want to cry softly when she whispers that what she misses most about her husband is his voice. It is a simple thing to miss, but any bereaved person can relate. I do not think Sandra Bullock has given a more natural or unaffected performance since Peter Bogdanovich’s The Thing Called Love.
I mentioned that I have not read the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. So, of course, I do not know how close Eric Roth’s adaptation is. Maybe the things I like best about the movie are from the book—or maybe they aren’t. What I know is this: the movies have the power to make stories seem extremely loud and incredibly close in ways that often elude the written word, and that is especially true of so much contemporary fiction. Give me instead the look on Max von Sydow’s face and the sadness in Sandra Bullock’s voice.
Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter’s website here.